The idea for this experiment was developed over the last 2 months from discussions with the accelerator physicists, namely Martin Spencer and Mark Boland, about the delicate balance of extremely complex frequencies needed to make the synchrotron beam actually work, which they call the “synchrotron tune”, at a frequency of about 13.3 MHz. Wondering what this might sound like led me (electronically) to Dr. Andreas Wilde, at the Fraunhofer-Institut fuer Integrierte Schaltungen Aussenstelle Entwurfsautomatisierung, in Dresden. With his expertise in acoustic mathematics, we were able to ‘pitch shift’ the synchrotron tune down to a frequency range that is audible to the human ear (which was basically just a long tone). This also allowed me to put a sound into the synchrotron! Via Andreas, I transformed several sounds into data formats that could be literally put into the electron beam, but none of them seemed right… this included a chorus of the scientists all shouting the word ’synchrotron’ (which was a bit parochial); the ‘Attention Attention’ announcement made when an electron injection is about to occur (this seemed a bit too self referential); and the opening guitar riff of the song ‘Fire’ from my old band ‘Crank’ (a ‘heavy metalesque’ song about particle physics - see (this basically turned the synchrotron into a $200 million effects pedal!!)

The day before the experiment was to be attempted (which had to be booked a month in advance), I was out the front of the complex in the hot sun, and the shrill cry of a cicada stopped me in my tracks. The cicada’s deafening high-pitched tune was not only geoacoustically appropriate, it also gave me a perfect ’synaesthetic’ picture of the energy beam whirling around the synchrotron ring. Thus I recorded it, sent it to Germany to be encoded, and gave it to the accelerator physicists.

The day of the experiment: The sound file was ‘pitch shifted’ up from a base frequency of 5 kHz to 1 MHz to make the ‘vibration’ fast enough to modulate the amplitude of the beam, in a way similar to how AM radio works. The image below is a photo of one of the control room screens showing the sound file ready to be put into the beam.


The physicist Martin Spencer put the data into the control system and tried to oscillate the beam around this frequency. But something went wrong (don’t ask me what exactly - I’m no scientist!), and the beam literally failed and stopped. I dumped the beam! (this is what they call it) Greg LeBlanc, the chief accelerator physicist, even shook my hand and congratulated me - not many people have managed to do that! The image below shows the main control screen with the poetically ominous ‘tune error’ warning.


But then they got the beam back up & running, tweaked the data a bit, pich shifted it higher and even put the maximum energy into the beamline. The data was ‘re-injected’, and this time it worked! The cicada frequency this time was in harmony with the ‘natural’ frequency of the synchrotron beam, and thus the beam vibrated with the sound of the cicada tune. It was a very exciting moment. Even though nothing was directly perceivable, just to know that the heart of the huge and incredibly complex facility around me was pulsating with the sound of the cicada that lived next to it somehow connected the synchrotron back to the world around it. The experiment revealed a relationship between sound and light and energy and matter, the cicada singing in the sunlight and the light in the synchrotron singing with the cicada’s tune. Below are images of the ‘cicada tune’ in the electron beam, detected on the control room screens.



Spectral and frequency data was recorded which will allow the ’synchrotron - cicada tune’ to be re-adjusted to audible frequencies. The experiment was a success! But then, just after I left the control room, accompanied by a roar of thunder and flashes of lightning, a huge storm hit! The wind and rain were ferocious within minutes. It was impossible to see outside, the wind blew trees over, and water started pouring into the entry, and was coming out of the lights. The whole facility had to be shut down. It’s infinitely unlikely this was caused by my experiment, but the timing was uncanny. There is the well-known ‘butterfly effect’, where a butterfly flapping its wings can in theory affect storms thousands of miles away - perhaps this was the ‘cicada effect’!