Astronaut musicians create a show that’s out of this world

Astronauts have been making music in orbit for almost 60 years, but at least some of the members of a band called Bandella prefer to think of themselves as musicians who just happened to become astronauts.

“We were musicians before we got into the astronaut corps,” one of the band’s founders, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, told me.

Bandella’s Seattle concerts, set for July 29 at the Museum of Flight, won’t be your typical summer music tour. The event will feature some space-themed tunes — including David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which went viral when Hadfield recorded a tribute performance on the International Space Station in 2013. There’ll also be a Q&A session during which the musicians recount their experiences in space.

Hadfield said it’s only natural that astronauts bring music with them when they go into orbit. “We’re just people, multifaceted,” he said. “And when you’re a long way from home, you know, you need art and music in amongst all the busyness.”

It’s also natural for astronauts to share their out-of-this-world experiences via the creative channels that they’ve developed throughout their lives. “A lot of it goes back to when you have been so incredibly lucky to have had the experiences that the members of the band have had. What do you do with those experiences? How do you explain it, and make it part of your own life, and not just a weird perturbation?” Hadfield said.

Cosmic Science

Listen to a 17,000-year-old conch shell horn

A sliding musical scale from a conch shell horn that hasn’t been played for 17,000 years, signs that Stonehenge was built with recycled rocks, and the world’s oldest known industrial-scale beer brewery: Here’s your daily dose of science on the Web…

Paleolithic horn blares again: What’s thought to be the world’s oldest known conch shell horn can play three notes: C, C-sharp and D.

The 17,000-year-old conch shell was discovered 90 years ago in the cave of Marsoulas, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. For decades, archaeologists assumed that it was used as a ceremonial drinking cup. But a team led by Carole Fritz, the head of research at France’s Prehistoric Art Research Center, took a closer look and saw signs that the shell had been modified to install a mouthpiece and was shaped to optimize its ability to play musical notes.

In the open-access journal Science Advances, the researchers recount how they recruited a musicologist and a horn player to re-fit the shell with a suitable mouthpiece and produce three different notes.

Sorbonne University archaeologist Philippe Walter told The Guardian that the notes would have reverberated impressively during Paleolithic rituals in the decorated cave. “The power of the sounds produced by the shell is incredible,” he said. “It is more than 100 decibels.”

Want to hear more music played on arguably ancient instruments? Listen to Boston University biologist (and flutist) Jelle Atema play a flute carved from a 4,000-year-old vulture bone, a deer-bone flute that’s thought to date back 30,000 years, and a replica of a 50,000-year-old bear-bone flute that might have been made by Neanderthals.

Stonehenge rocks traced to older ceremonial circle in Wales: Some of the stones that formed the ceremonial circle at Stonehenge were transported hundreds of miles from a similar stone circle in Wales that was built centuries earlier — but then dismantled.

That’s the conclusion of archaeologists who reported their findings last weekend in the journal Antiquity.

Researchers have known for a while that Stonehenge’s slabs of bluestone were quarried in Wales more than 5,000 years ago, but there was an unresolved mystery: Radiocarbon dating suggested that 300 to 400 years passed between the time the stones were quarried and the time they were placed at Stonehenge. What could explain the gap?

Excavation of a Welsh site known as Waun Maun turned up a plausible explanation: Stonehenge’s slabs were a perfect fit for the socket-shaped pits that were left behind at Waun Maun, suggesting that the region’s ancient inhabitants pulled out the stones and carried them to Salisbury Plain during a mass migration.

Four stones that were left behind at Waun Maun helped archaeologists reconstruct the 360-foot-wide circle traced by Waun Maun’s empty sockets — a circle that matched the dimensions of a circular trench that was part of Stonehenge’s original layout.

“There was great excitement, but I think also blessed relief,” University College London archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson told ITV News, “because this had been a real labor of love, trying to untangle this extraordinary mystery.”

5,000-year-old brewery unearthed in Egypt: Archaeologists have found the remains of a sprawling brewery that may have produced the beer for royal burial rituals in Egypt thousands of years ago.

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says the brewery, unearthed in the ancient city of Abydos, was split into eight large sections for beer production, each containing 40 clay pots that were used to warm mixtures of grain and water.

The brewery could have produced as much as 5,900 gallons of beer at a time, New York University archaeologist Matthew Adams said.

Evidence for small-scale beer production goes back as far as 13,000 years, based on an analysis of residues found in a cave in Israel, but the discovery at Abydos suggests that the Egyptians were mass-producing beer during the era of King Narmer, 5,000 years ago.


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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


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.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.


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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


The musical instrument you play with your mind

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?”

Get the full story on GeekWire.


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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.