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Election 2008

The Sound of Cancer, and Golf

Krissy Clark

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Cell Sonification
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Model of the Perfect Golf Swing
(Stanford Motion Lab)

This is a story about a musician who accidentally became a scientist. But before we get to either the musician or the science, consider, for a moment, the golf swing. For example, the one that just sent a golf ball whirring toward the parking lot. "Ah that was the wrong direction!" the culprit, a young blond woman, apologizes.

"That wasn't where you were planning on it going?" I joke.

"No." She points over a hill in the opposite direction. "Over there actually."

There are many approaches to mastering the golf-swing.

"I relax my grip just a little," says an older woman at the nine-hole course in Los Angeles. The twenty-something with the beer tells me, "Keep your head down, and keep your left arm straight." "Keep your left eye behind the ball," says another. "It's all in hips," I'm told. "It's all about timing," I'm told. "Flex your knees," says the golf pro at the course. But the young woman who sent the ball careening toward the parking lot says it best: "Just swing and hope you hit the ball."

All the golf advice in the world sounds like complete nonsense at first. Because the golf swing is an elusive, subtle thing. Blame it on "the je ne sais quoi of the golf swing," says Amy Ladd. She's an orthopedic surgeon at Stanford University, and a sometimes-golfer.

She's made it her mission to understand the science of the golf swing--from the twist of the wrist, to the tilt of the anterior superior iliac spine. So, she brought professional golfers to her motion laboratory, and attached to their bodies and golf clubs dozens of small white markers, about the size of blueberries.

As the golfer swings, a computer calculates how the markers move through space. Then Ladd uses that data to figure out how the golfer's body moves too.

But understanding the movement is the easy part, Ladd says. "You know they call it in golf? The sweet spot." And teaching someone how to find the sweet spot has plagued golfers for more than 1,000 years.

That's where Jonathan Berger, the musician from Stanford, and a friend of Amy Ladd, comes in. "I'm not interested in golf," he says. "At all. In fact I'm the world's most spastic person." But, when he heard Ladd talk about the agony of watching someone try to learn a golf swing, it gave him an odd sense of deja-vu.

"I watched my daughters learn to play cello, and for any parent who's suffered that, it's agonizing. It's total agony. And then one day it clicks. One day they get it. And there's nothing, nothing a teacher can do. And you see this moment when a kid gets how to bow. And you realize there's this incredible complexity, in the wrist, in the muscles and the forearm. Everything is so complex, and everything is working in a specific way. And it only works because of auditory feed back."

And so, auditory feedback is just what Berger, the musician, and Ladd, the golfer, have tried to create for a golf swing. It is a bizarre idea: When you swing a golf club wrong, you make the same sort of horrible, horrible noises as a beginning cello player.

And when all your muscles and joints do everything right, you make a pure sound.

It's a simple principle: Distort the movements of the swing, and the sound gets distorted too. "And the degree of distortion is the degree of divergence from the sweet spot," explains Berger. He calls this technique "sonification." And, by "sonifying" the golfer's body, by putting it to music, he can reveal new information, new patterns. "What I'm after," he says, "is representing complex, dynamic systems in sound."

This is not a new idea. Sounds have always told us a lot. Take the "Car Talk" guys, on NPR.

Berger says, when a caller calls in, say, talking about trouble he's having with his 1993 Volkswagon Eurovan, and tells the car guys that it "makes a squealing noise," and when that caller proceeds to make a sound like a rabid honey-bee, amplified through a stadium sound-system, the car guys do not listen to his performance just to humor him.

"Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, they're really wonderful. The first thing they always do is ask people to imitate the sound of what's wrong in their car," says Berger. "They actually have this language. You can take these three musical terms, and diagnose what's happening, without opening the hood. We know that we have this intuitive ingrained use of auditory cues. So that's a musical language."

A car has its musical language. So do the cells in our body.

Berger has been working with cancer researchers and mathematicians on non-invasive ways to detect cancer. Instead of doing a biopsy, you can do things like medical resonance imaging, also known as MRIs. But the problem is that MRIs give you so much information, it's hard to know what to do with it. In a visual form, it's virtually impossible to separate the important data from the meaningless stuff.

So, Berger assigned different sounds to different data points. "Imagine there's an orchestra of one hundred players, and each of those points is mapped to one of those orchestra players," he says. Essentially, he's creating a symphony based on the information contained in the cells. And our ears can tell the difference between a benign symphony, which is a low, pulsing beat.

And then there's a tinnier, more bell-like, malignant symphony.

But Berger is ultimately not a scientist. And even the sounds of malignant tumors are beautiful to him. He makes music with them.

Berger wonders what audience members would think if they knew what this music was. "I don't think I would ever write in program notes that the sounds they're hearing are the sounds of malignant colon cells," he says. "But I was very much taken with them. I thought they were very beautiful sounds. And I just made an orchestra out of different levels of healthiness of cells."

Maybe this weekend, you'll be listening to the hushed applause on the golf course at the Sony Open. Maybe you'll be listening to churn of a washing machine, or the clatter of plates at a diner. Whatever you're doing, Jonathan Berger reminds you, to listen. What might those sounds be telling you?

  • Music Bridge:
    Thriftstore Jewelrey
    Artist: The Bad Plus
    CD: Prog ((Do The Math))

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