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Scientist blends climate change curiosity with his love of classical music

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to meet a scientist who blended his curiosity about the forces that govern climate and in turn, climate change, with his love of classical music. NPR's Lindsay Totty has more.

LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: Hiroto Nagai is an earth science professor at Rissho University in Japan. His passion for the field was sparked when he was in college.

HIROTO NAGAI: I was so impressed by a solar eclipse on Antarctica.

TOTTY: He watched the phenomenon unfold on television in 2003, and since then, he's dedicated his life to the sun's effects on the Earth - as a scientist and now as a composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROTO NAGAI'S "POLAR ENERGY BUDGET")

TOTTY: This tense cello riff is no ordinary melody. The rise and fall of the notes were inspired by the rise and fall of solar radiation on the Earth's surface. Each note represents a monthly average of solar radiation in watts per square meter.

NAGAI: Solar radiation is the fundamental source of surface dynamics.

TOTTY: As Nagai explains, radiation from the sun is responsible for global temperatures and other weather effects. He saw an opportunity to use climate data to make music. Nagai realized he could turn scientific data about how the sun affects the Earth into sound data, a process called sonification, something heard all over the scientific world.

NAGAI: If we are in the hospital, we hear sounds of pulse of patient's heart. That is one example of sonification.

TOTTY: For Nagai's musical experiment, he looked up 30 years worth of publicly available data that had been gathered by four research facilities in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where effects of climate change like melting sea ice and disappearing glaciers can be observed. Nagai then used music software to convert those figures into tones of varying pitch. He then assigned the data from each of those four stations to the instruments of a string quartet - two violins, a viola, and a cello.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROTO NAGAI'S "POLAR ENERGY BUDGET")

TOTTY: Here, he added data from NASA. Each of these violin notes represents an eight-day average of land-surface temperature. As the piece progresses, the instruments give voice to other forms of climate data, including cloud thickness and precipitation. But Nagai says if the entire piece were dictated by all this data, it wouldn't make for a compelling composition. He wanted to make room for human emotion, so he wrote a section that came not from that data, but from his own imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROTO NAGAI'S "POLAR ENERGY BUDGET")

TOTTY: In this section, Nagai says he imagined what it would be like to live and work at one of those polar research stations.

NAGAI: I decided to make a very relaxing scene. So something like after the expedition with North Pole, South Pole, then, oh, I'm home. So I reached my station.

TOTTY: Nagai calls the piece "Polar Energy Budget."

NAGAI: Budget means balance or exchanging of energy.

TOTTY: While Nagai says the data points he used are essential to understanding climate change, this piece is not meant to be a call to action.

NAGAI: I don't have some political opinion, but I direct people to increase knowledge of the systems behind climate change.

TOTTY: If you'd like to listen to "Polar Energy Budget," you can visit the website of the journal iScience.

TOTTY: Lindsay Totty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.