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David McFarlane Q&A

Seeing Sound: A Chromethesia Concert is one of the most popular events to have been announced for Manchester Science Festival 2018. We caught up with David McFarlane, the man behind the event, to find out more.

Black and white portrait of David McFarlane

What is synaesthesia?

Synaesthesia is a neurological condition experienced by about 4% of the population, which means that when one of their senses is stimulated, it causes a response in another sense. So for example, some people with synaesthesia experience a taste sensation whenever they hear certain words. Quite a common one is people seeing every letter as having a particular colour. I met someone once who saw shapes in his mind every time he tasted something. I asked him how his coffee tasted and he said it was jagged and spiky!

A lot of people experience a sort of similar but sort of weaker thing with days of the week, and associate every day really strongly with a particular colour. My event is looking at a particular type called chromesthesia, in which hearing sounds causes people to see colours, and trying to recreate that experience with a string quartet and lighting technology.

What do you think is the most amazing scientific event, discovery or advancement of recent years?

Possibly not the most amazing, but I always have my mind blown when I go into a library and use one of those machines where you put your book inside and it knows which one it is instantly, that really makes me marvel at the wonders of human invention.

If you could meet any scientist, living or dead, who would it be?

Karen Barad! She’s a (living) theoretical physicist who also writes a lot about philosophy of science and feminism. I really like her ideas about agential realism and intra-activity. At least I think I do; I’m not sure I understand them properly. I mainly want to meet her so I can ask her if she’d explain them to me a bit more. She also writes about how producing scientific knowledge always has an ethical side to it, even if it feels like a neutral, objective investigation, or feels like technological objects are just morally neutral.

I think this is something you can see really clearly in places like the Science and Industry Museum’s Textiles Gallery–the machines are absolutely incredible pieces of technology, and incredible things to see working, but they were also really dangerous and relied on a lot of child and slave labour to run, so it’s important to see things from that angle too!

Special mention for second place goes to Hugh Everett III, who was the first scientist to come up with the idea of parallel universes, but also was the dad of Mark Everett, lead singer of the excellent band Eels. There’s a really good documentary about him presented by Mark where he tries to understand his dad’s theories, which I’d recommend to any other science/music nerds out there. If his theory’s correct, I probably have met him in a parallel universe anyway, so fingers crossed it is.

What’s the one thing about science you wish you had known when you were younger?

I really wish I’d paid more attention in design technology class in school. My knowledge of woodworking and electronics and things like that is terrible, and I think they’d come in really handy for me now! So I guess I wish I’d known how useful those kinds of skills would be to a future me.

What do you think is going to be the next “big thing” in science?

I think it’s a toss-up between artificial intelligence and renewable energy. I think renewable energy is going to have to be the next big thing or we won’t last on the planet much longer. Artificial intelligence is moving forward at an astounding rate though. Ideally, I think the next big thing would be a robot that solves climate change for us.

What’s the most unbelievable science fact you know?

One of my favourite facts about music science is to do with groove, which people use in casual music settings all the time in quite an instinctive way, but groove is actually something that music researchers have tried to measure and define. One study to do with groove figured out that the music that most makes people want to dance is music with a medium amount of rhythmic complexity. It’s sort of a Goldilocks situation– if the rhythm of a beat is boring, nobody wants to dance, if the rhythm is too complicated, nobody wants to dance, but if the rhythmic complexity is just right, that’s when you’ve got a banger. So groove isn’t in the heart after all, it’s at the apex of a U-shaped curve showing the relationship between rhythmic complexity and danceability. That’s probably not as catchy a lyric though.

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