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Musician-Scientists Host Innovative Climate Change Event

Panel, string quartet performance will help explain warming of the planet

  • Using emotions of music to deepen understanding of major issue of the day
  • Musical piece to demonstrate how Earth is warming faster at high latitudes
  • Engaging nature of music can improve communication, retention
EVANSTON, Ill.  --- Playing off the emotions of music, scientists will help deepen understanding about climate change at a Northwestern University event titled “Making Climate Data Sing.”

The program features a group of musician-scientists who will perform in a string quartet. The music will be accompanied by a panel discussion that explores how music can help explain climate change.

Inspired and created by University of Minnesota scientists and musicians Daniel Crawford and Scott St. George, the interdisciplinary program will take place 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, at Lutkin Memorial Hall, 700 University Place on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

Crawford and St. George, who will participate in the program, argue that music has a role in communicating science because it can elicit a strong emotional response leading to deeper engagement and understanding.

“The arts have a role to play in scientific issues that impact the public sphere, and climate change is certainly one of those, whether you ‘believe’ it or not,” said Brad Sageman, co-director of the Institute for Sustainability and Energy (ISEN) at Northwestern.

Sageman and Miranda Cawley, a Northwestern senior majoring in journalism and environmental science, will participate in the panel discussion following the musical performance. The event is hosted by Northwestern’s Buffet Institute for Global Studies.

The inherently narrative nature of music builds on previous notes or phrases with an often-powerful influence on human emotions. Some scientists think sonification -- transforming data into acoustic signals -- may be a way to better engage the public and help them retain the ideas.

Temperature data, for example, can be complicated because it’s measured by a variety of instruments, with different levels of error, and in many different places that have a massive range of variability, Northwestern’s Sageman said.

Yet it’s possible to extract clear signals from the noise. “The average temperature of the Earth has increased over the last 150 years, especially in the last decade, and the rate in increase is not geographically uniform,” Sageman said. “It is warming much faster at high latitudes. This will be demonstrated by the musical piece.”

“Music stirs our emotions,” Sageman added. “Hopefully having people talk about the feelings evoked by this performance will also help to stimulate conversation about climate change.”

Panelists include:

Daniel Crawford, Institute of Environment (University of Minnesota), is an environmental geographer and musician who uses sonification to enhance the communication of climate science.

Scott St. George is an associate professor of geography, environment and society at the University of Minnesota. He is a resident fellow in the University’s Institute on the Environment. As an earth scientist trained in paleoclimatology, St. George uses evidence preserved in tree rings and other natural archives to understand how and why our environment has changed during the last several hundred or thousands of years.

Brad Sageman is co-director of the Institute for Sustainability and Energy and chair of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern. He is an earth scientist with research interests in carbon cycling, climate change and sustainable energy. His research has its foundation in understanding the relationship between geologic time and the accumulation of sedimentary rocks. It is relevant to both the exploration and production of hydrocarbons (especially shale gas, a critical transition fuel to a low-carbon future) as well as the role of the carbon cycle as a natural source and sink of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Miranda Cawley is a senior at Northwestern majoring in journalism and environmental science. She uses media to educate about food, water and our relationship with the environment.

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