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OK Go and Blue Origin team up on art contest

OK Go in zero-G
OK Go’s zero-gravity art contest follows up on a music video that the group performed during a zero-gravity airplane flight. (OK Go Photo)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is joining forces with the music-video masters at OK Go to give students a chance to send art experiments into outer space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

The “Art in Space” contest follows up on OK Go’s viral “Upside Down & Inside Out” video, which splashed paint all over the interior of an airplane during a zero-gravity parabolic airplane flight.

“Now we want you to try, but in actual space!” the music group says in today’s contest announcement.

Winners won’t be able to get quite as wild and crazy as OK Go did: Their experiments will have to be confined inside a 4-by-4-by-8-inch box that would be packed aboard an upcoming New Shepard test flight in West Texas. They can weigh no more than 1.1 pounds, and explosives are frowned upon.

Despite the limitations, teams will have wide leeway to design a payload that produces art in microgravity.

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Opera gets to the core of Steve Jobs’ character

John Moore in Steve Jobs opera
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (played by John Moore) raises a smartphone in a scene from “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” (Seattle Opera Photo / Philip Newton)

You shouldn’t expect to glean startup tips from “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” the one-act opera staged by the Seattle Opera this week and next. And don’t expect to hear the brand names “Apple” or “iPhone” or even “Microsoft” sung. But you can expect to see and hear the tangled tale of Apple’s enigmatic co-founder, told on a literally operatic scale.

There’s also a message for techies that can be boiled down to the first words flashing on the supertitle screen, even before the first note sounds: “Look up. Look around. Be here now. And turn off your devices.”

Devices like Apple’s iPhone figure heavily in the staging of “(R)evolution”: Even the set elements that swirl around the stage and serve to project backdrops are proportioned like giant iPhones. The first big aria in the work, with music by Mason Bates and libretto by Mark Campbell, celebrates the iPhone’s introduction in 2007: “Only one device / Does it all / In one hand / All you need.”

But devices are never all you need, even when you’re an introspective, obsessive genius like Jobs.

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Rock-star astrophysicist debuts space anthem

Brian May
Brian May, who is the lead guitarist for the rock group Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist, shows off his New Horizons mission patch during a Q&A with journalists. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAUREL, Md. — After you’ve participated in NASA’s New Horizons mission to the edge of the solar system, and written a rock anthem for the mission as well, what is there left to do? For Brian May, the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen who went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics, maybe it’s taking a trip to space.

“I’m probably too old to do that,” the 71-year-old British rocker said at first. “A little too old in the tooth to do that.”

Then, after a moment of reflection, he changed his tune.

“I probably still would like to, yeah,” he said. “I don’t really fancy the idea of going up and having a few seconds and then coming back down again. That doesn’t appeal to me. What appeals to me more is, for instance, the ISS [International Space Station], where you can go up there and you sit there and contemplate the world which you were born on, and watch it turn underneath you.”

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Revisit the wacky world of corporate musicals

No fan of Broadway musicals should miss classics like “I Never Enjoyed My Operation More,” “My Insurance Man” and “My Bathroom Is a Private Kind of Place.”

What’s that? Never heard of ’em? For decades, those songs were heard only by employees at morale-boosting events, plus a precious few record collectors enchanted by what are known as industrial musicals.

Now one of those record collectors, TV comedy writer Steve Young, has had his quest turned into a hilarious and sweet documentary titled “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” The movie has already been picking up awards on the film-festival circuit, and it’s opening this weekend in Seattle for a regular run at the Varsity Theater.

Ironically, the innovations that have allowed Young to flesh out the little-known saga of industrial musicals — including the rise of the modern tech industry, the internet and online video — also contributed to the decline of industrial musicals.

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Scientists dig the jazz that bowhead whales sing

Bowhead whale
A bowhead whale surfaces in Fram Strait. (Norwegian Polar Institute Photo / Kit Kovacs)

A research team led by an University of Washington oceanographer has published the largest known set of songs from bowhead whales, the jazz singers of the cetacean tribe.

An analysis of 184 different songs, recorded between 2010 and 2014, finds that bowhead whales swimming in the Arctic Ocean east of Greenland have a surprisingly diverse repertoire of vocalizations.

“If humpback whale song is like classical music, bowheads are jazz,” study lead author Kate Stafford of UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory said in a news release. “The sound is more free form. And when we looked through four winters of acoustic data, not only were there never any song types repeated between years, but each season had a new set of songs.”

Stafford and her colleagues published their findings in today’s issue of Biology Letters.

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ID authentication scheme uses music as the key

Close Encounters
In “Close Encounters of Third Kind,” Francois Truffaut plays a UFO researcher who uses music as an authentication tool for the aliens. (Columbia / EMI via YouTube)

Amazon’s inventors have come up with a computer-based system that makes use musical transformations to authenticate a whole group of users — and block access if anyone strikes a false note.

The concept, which is called chained authentication using musical transforms, is the subject of a patent that was sought back in 2014 and published today.

Here’s how it could work: When a pre-specified group requests access to protected data, the computer service holding that data sends out a “musical seed” to the first user on the group’s list. This seed can be an actual melody, or it can be a series of seemingly garbled tones.

The first user runs the tones through a transformation — for example, changing notes from sharps to flats, or bringing the melody down a fifth. Different users apply their own assigned algorithms to twist and turn the melody, and the last user on the list sends the audio file back to the service for authentication.

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The musical instrument you play with your mind

Encephalophone
Neurologist Thomas Deuel practices on the encephalophone in preparation for a gig. (Credit: 9e2)

How many musical instruments can you play without moving a muscle? There’s at least one: the encephalophone, which turns brain waves into tunes with a beat you can dance to.

Swedish Hospital neurologist Thomas Deuel will show how it’s done, with the accompaniment of a musical ensemble, on Oct. 22 at Seattle’s King Street Station as part of the 9e2 arts and technology festival. There’ll be an encore performance on Oct. 24.

Various types of encephalophones have been around for decades, but Deuel’s contraption (patent pending) has a clinical twist: He developed his version to help train the brains of patients who suffer from neurological diseases, strokes or spinal cord injuries.

“At first, I wanted to make a new musical instrument. I thought it’d be really fun and interesting from an artistic standpoint and music standpoint,” Deuel said at this week’s MIT Enterprise Forum on augmented humans. “But as I developed it, I learned a lot about the feedback aspect, and I started thinking, ‘Well, I have all these patients with disabilities … how can I use this for therapeutics?”

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Gravitational waves spark tuneful tribute

Tim Blais, the singing scientist behind “Bohemian Gravity,” “Rolling in the Higgs” and “The Surface of Light,” is back with another pop parody that’s packed with physics. And this time it’s as big as a black hole – or at least the gravitational waves generated by black holes crashing together.

“LIGO Feel that Space,” sung to the tune of “I Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd, delves into the potentially Nobel-winning detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, better known as LIGO.

Last month’s announcement about the detection set off a wave of wonderment, in part because it affirmed one of the predictions made a century earlier by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Gravitational-wave observations are also expected to provide a new way to study the universe’s most dramatic phenomena, such as supernovae, black hole mergers and neutron star collisions.

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R.I.P. David Bowie: From space oddity to hero

Image: David Bowie in video game
David Bowie helped develop the story for a video game titled “Omikron: The Nomad Soul” in 1999, and portrayed a character named Boz. (Credit: Eidos Interactive via YouTube)

Rock superstar David Bowie, who died of cancer over the weekend at the age of 69, became famous as a “Space Oddity” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” – but his legacy includes real technological innovations as well as contributions to science fiction and fashion.

That’s a big reason why so many scientists, explorers and techies are flocking to tweet their condolences. Even from outer space.

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‘Origins’ concert sets the Big Bang to music

Image: Big Bang
An artist’s conception shows two “branes” colliding in multidimensional space, creating the Big Bang that gave rise to our own universe 13.8 billion years ago. (Animation by Deep Sky Studios)

The Big Bang never looked, or sounded, so good: The piece de resistance for this week’s SpaceFest in Seattle is a symphonic review of 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, from its expansive beginnings to an unpredictable sonic wave of emergent behavior.

Most of the SpaceFest events take place at the Museum of Flight, but the capper is a concert titled “Origins: Life in the Universe,” unfolding at Benaroya Hall at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“The whole focus is to blow people away with the beauty of astronomy,” said scientist-composer Glenna Burmer, one of the prime movers for “Origins.”

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