Dr Andrew Gibbs (University of Reading) interview: hertz Unlimited project – Colliding advanced mathematics with art

hertz is an innovative research and development project, and the creation of experienced Lead Artist Juliet Robson. It is supported by arts commissioning programme Unlimited, which celebrates the work of disabled artists, with funding from Arts Council England. hertz diversely marries four fields of study: art, astrophysics, mathematics and meteorology. The project aims to allow audiences to discover what noise, trapped inside stars in space, sounds like – and what it looks like in the shape of patterns it creates. Further, hertz aims to translate infrasound, which we cannot hear, into physical sensations people can experience.

Dr Andrew Gibbs – whose PhD is in Applied Mathematics from the University of Reading – is collaborating on the project and here, describes his role on the team and what first drew him to hertz

What first attracted you to the project?

I received an email from the Lead Artist Juliet Robson and it intrigued me. I didn’t know what she really might want from me – she simply said she wanted to work with anyone who knew about sound waves. I replied and said I had done a lot of work with them and modelling them for my PhD so that they look aesthetically pleasing – like ripples on a lake, you could say. Then the more we talked, the more interested I became. Combining science with art is a great concept.

Have you ever collaborated with an artist previously?

No, I haven’t. I have friends who are artists, so it is nice now to actually get involved in that discipline. My PhD heavily involved computational modelling, but never actually creating anything real, so to speak. It is nice to have the opportunity to do that now through hertz. 

Describe your background Andrew.

I have spent a lot of time at the University of Reading. I completed my undergraduate degree there. I then took some time out working before returning to start my PhD, which I have just finished. I really enjoyed it. I love working with sound in general and I like to play music in my spare time. My PhD broadly focused on sound waves and what happens when they hit obstacles. What bounces back? The idea that the human voice sounds different in a small, contained space compared to how it sounds in a large expanse. For example, if you are constructing a new car: how noisy will it be when you are sat inside it? Or if you are building a concert hall: will the acoustics be terrible or fantastic? The findings from my PhD have a large range of applications.

What is your role on hertz?

I am the go-to maths guy on the team. If Juliet has questions in terms of understanding how the maths is affecting something she is working on, I try to explain it to her in a semi layman way, so she doesn’t have to go away and try and translate the answer from a dense academic textbook. I give her the nice version. I am also writing some software, which will allow us to take the sonic frequencies of stars and adjust them so we can see where the patterns form in the audio range.

What specifically intrigues you about the project?

I guess in short creating something that everyone can find interesting, combining maths and physics and art. I think it is an important concept and also really lovely. For example, we all go through our day-to-day lives and use GPS on our smartphones or on our sat-navs in cars, but without really understanding how it works. I hope people come away from seeing hertz and want to find out and understand more. Hertz all starts from taking visual measurements from stars. From that we can deduce what they sound like and from that we can fire sound waves through a plate, which causes vibrations and forms unique patterns.

How will working on hertz benefit your own practice?

Like I have said, finally making something physical is really nice for me – rather than writing computer code and models. Working with Juliet and the other collaborators on the project has already been a great experience. It is going extremely well. Juliet is very impressively on top of everything.