Field Samples: The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Science

Field Samples is a Q&A with researchers presenting at our weekly Wednesday seminar. Today the CFL’s distinguished research professor, Paul Hanson, will use music as a science communication tool. Tune in online for the live creation of a musical piece on harmful algal blooms! We’ll also live Tweet – #cflseminar 

Paul Hanson and colleagues combining science and music in the studio. Photo: Grace Hong
Paul Hanson and colleagues combining science and music in the studio. Photo: Grace Hong

Who are you, where are you from, and how did you get here?    
I’m Paul Hanson.  I’m originally from southeastern Wisconsin — the Janesville and Whitewater areas.  I got here by meeting with John Magnuson while he was on sabbatical at the University of Washington.  I was working at the Boeing Company at the time and was interested in moving back to Wisconsin.  John offered me a job, and I accepted and moved back two weeks later.
Pretend we just boarded an elevator and you only have one-minute to tell me about what it is you’re presenting on at seminar.  
My music colleagues — Chris Wagoner, Mary Gaines, and Doug Brown — and I will be talking about how we might communicate scientific ideas through music.  We will use the live development of a musical piece as the analog for modeling harmful algal blooms.
Why should someone not in the field of freshwater sciences care about your work? (The dreaded “So What?” question – is there a bigger picture here?).  
It’s challenging to make concrete examples of the more theoretical knowledge we build with analytical models, and it’s just as challenging to communicate those ideas to our colleagues and the public.  Both music and science are human endeavors, and an understanding of how scientists develop ideas can be achieved through music.  When our models work and when we communicate that message effectively, we all become more engaged and we learn. 
What question did you answer or do you hope to answer? What other questions might your work lead scientists to ask?  
 Are our analytical models more like music or like the ecosystems we are modeling?  Can we effectively communicate through music the process of doing science?
 Tell me about one funny, memorable, exciting or awesome moment from your work either in the field or in the lab.
Chris and I wrote a waltz about a stream.  We had arranged it as a standard 3/4 time piece and saved it for the final piece to record in a studio session.  Everyone was exhausted from the long day, but this was our only chance to get the recording done.  Our colleague, Doug Brown, who plays guitar in the recording, had a radical suggestion for the recording.  He would open with a technique on the guitar that makes it sound like a harp.  That would be followed and overlaid by a single, sustained note on the cello.  Finally, Chris would play the melody over the top.  The effect was the development of a story that started simply and with eastern overtones and that morphed and grew in complexity through the end of the song.  Finished in one take.  The outcome was magic.
Where do you hope to go from here either with this work, or, literally, after your time at Hasler Lab?
Depending on how the ideas resonate (Editor’s note: nice pun!) with colleagues, we would like to expand the science-music collaboration to include more people and more ideas.