Science imitating Art

It is often said that art imitates life. Well, sometimes, science can imitate art. This morning I was looking at some data taken with an astronomical receiver that has not yet been fully commissioned. When the data were plotted in front of me, part of my mind thought back to my GCSE art classes and the work of artist Bridget Riley. Bridget Riley created kinetic op art and I remember being fascinated by the way the curving of the lines made my eyes think that the paper was bending. Back at my computer screen I realised that the curves in my data were doing the same thing.

On the left is part of Fall, 1963 by Bridget Riley. On the right are some data with a 50 Hz mains signal.CREDIT: Bridget Riley/Stuart
These wavy lines look pretty funky. In my case (right), they are due to electronic pick-up of an A.C. mains signal oscillating at 50 Hz (European standard). The horizontal axis is time within a second (actually only the first half of a second because I cropped it) and the vertical axis shows subsequent seconds.

If you have ever dealt with microphones or audio data you may have experience of a 50 Hz (60 Hz in the US) hum due to mains powered equipment. For both audio folks and astronomers, these signals are unwanted and can cause poor sound quality or dodgy astronomical data. You can tackle the hum by keeping cables short and shielding them. If necessary, you can also try to filter the 'bad' signals out of the data afterwards. Personally, I'm not overly concerned that they are in my data because I know their origin and I know that it won't be a problem when the receiver is used in anger. So rather than worrying about them, I can think of them as a cool op art. After all, science can be pretty artistic sometimes.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 23rd Aug 2007 (15:43 PDT) | Permalink
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