Giving a voice to Neutrinos

The mysterious realm of quantum physics has been a source of inspiration for many artists. Recently Fermilab guest composer David Ibbett released a neutrino-inspired video and commentary.


In David Ibbett’s latest musical offering as guest composer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, soprano Beth Sterling sings of the subtle neutrino: “You should be massless … you should be changeless.” Yet experiments have shown that neutrinos have mass and continually change form as they move through time and space.


The music starts with a trio of violin, viola, and cello, and a soprano voice sings the lyrics on the minimalistic pattern played by the trio. Then piano and later drums join the music and change the modern-sounding start of the piece to more popular music.


Which one was the first, music or language?

David Ibbett named the piece “the particle of doubt” because he believes that the neutrinos put a hole in the standard model of modern physics. They don’t quite fit the model, as they have mass, but they shouldn't according to the model.


These facts make the neutrino the most mysterious particle in the standard model and thus David Ibbett found his inspirations from this particle. He assigned the tree main instruments, (violin, viola, and cello) of the piece to the three different neutrino flavors and probability.


“Particle of Doubt” features what Ibbett calls a “sonification” of neutrino oscillation, the phenomenon in which a neutrino morphs between its various types. He mapped the probability waves of neutrino transformation to the three string melodies.

With its modern musicality, “Particles of Doubt” underscores that neutrinos are neither massless nor changeless—nor voiceless.


Will AI replace humans musicians?

“We’re thrilled to be working with David as Fermilab’s first guest composer,” says Janet MacKay-Galbraith, head of the Fermilab Arts and Lecture Series. “His musical creativity, intellectual curiosity, and passion for physics perfectly express the synchronicities between the arts and science. We can’t wait to hear and see what he comes up with next in this year-long endeavor.”


A four-minute video of the performance as well as the composer’s commentary (which opens with a cameo by Ibbett’s new baby) is now available online. It is a trailer for a larger piece that is planned to premiere at Fermilab in 2021.


Lyrics of the “Particle of Doubt”:


You should be massless 

Like rays of light.

You should be changeless,

But the change gives us hope we’ll know where we came from.

Born inside the sun

And dying stars since time’s beginning;

So hard for us to know you,

So we’re moving the heavens and earth,

And I want to be there.


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