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The sounds of STEAM

By Jennifer Tidball

If a Kansas State University researcher makes a discovery and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Of course it does. We collected the sound bites to prove it.

The perception of sound is more than a philosophical thought experiment. Sound plays an active role in STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — research at Kansas State University. These research noises come from laboratories, studios, industrial plants and the great outdoors.

This interactive text describes research projects at Kansas State University and the sounds associated with them. 

Listen to the multidisciplinary symphony of research in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. 

Nuclear noises


When the countdown reaches zero, the Triga Mark II nuclear reactor facility executes its special capability: a reactor pulse. With a loud “ca-chunk,” the reactor ejects a control rod using air pressure, which causes the power to increase by a factor of 100 million in 0.01 seconds and then rapidly return to low power. Six seconds later, a “clank” means the rod has fallen back into place in the core.

The special capability produces a large amount of neutron flux in a short period of time, which can be used for analyzing materials and developing radiation detectors, said Jeff Geuther, nuclear reactor manager.

The nuclear reactor, part of the mechanical and nuclear engineering department, has other important research capabilities and also supports academic and education programs, industrial service and outreach. 

Listen to a reactor pulse from the nuclear reactor facility. 

A natural symphony


The Flint Hills are alive with the sounds of ... bison, bugs, birds and burning. 

Those sounds are part of research at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, an 8,600-acre native tallgrass prairie jointly owned by Kansas State University and The Nature Conservancy. The Konza Prairie — nestled in the Flint Hills just south of Manhattan — provides an outdoor laboratory for long-term ecological research, education and prairie conservation.

Research at the Konza Prairie includes watershed-level experiments focused on tallgrass prairie ecosystems and the effects of fire, bison grazing and cattle grazing, as well as other basic biological research. A recent study found that more frequent burnings in the Flint Hills are needed to keep the tallgrass prairie ecosystem from transitioning to woodland, said John Briggs, director of the Konza Prairie. 

Listen to researchers and a fire crew conduct an experimental burn at the Konza Prairie.

Think pink


Birds of a feather make sounds together. A flock of flamingos can be especially noisy. From the flapping of feathered wings to low grunts and higher-pitched honking, flamingos are social birds.

Researchers with the university’s Veterinary Health Center are improving the health of the pink birds. James Carpenter, professor of zoological medicine, and veterinary medicine interns and students are collaborating with Manhattan’s Sunset Zoo to study the zoo’s Caribbean flamingo flock. The researchers are determining the proper dosages for antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs that can treat disease in this species. They also have tested a vaccine that prevents West Nile virus infections, which can be fatal to flamingos and other birds.

Flamingos are also susceptible to eye infections, and Carpenter and the Veterinary Health Center ophthalmologists have performed ocular examinations in flamingos to develop better diagnostic procedures and early treatment options. 

Listen to the noisy flock of flamingos. 

Feeding sounds


From the whirling of the pellet-making skip touch to the pouring of corn and other grains, the university’s O.H. Kruse Feed Technology Innovation Center is full of the sounds of industrial research.

The center includes a modern, automated 5-ton per-hour production and teaching feed mill and a biosafety level-2 teaching and research feed mill. The center is the home of the university’s feed science and management program — one of only two such university programs in the country, said Charles Stark, director of the center.

Several times a week, the mill receives grain from delivery trucks. Researchers grind the grain, weigh it and then mix it to make various feeds. Finished feed goes to the cattle, swine and other animals in Kansas State University units and also is used for research and industry projects.

Listen to the day-to- day sounds at the feed mill. 

Taking off


Unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, are a common sound at the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus. After a few start-up beeps and noises, the whirling of motors and blades begins and the UAS is ready for takeoff.

Kansas State Polytechnic is a national leader in UAS research, education and flight training. The UAS program is the principal initiative of the university’s Applied Aviation Research Center, which completes hundreds of missions yearly and allows students to participate in these missions, said Kurt Carraway, UAS program executive director.

Some UAS research projects involve mapping natural resources and using UAS to inspect power infrastructure, such as power lines or wind turbines. The program operates under numerous FAA operational regulations, including Part 107 — the FAA’s newest regulations for small UAS commercial operations. The program began training students in those operations the day the regulations went into effect. 

Listen to an unmanned aircraft system take flight. 

The harmony of clay


When graduate student Eliza Weber creates a ceramic bowl or vase, she also creates a ceramic chorus.

Weber, master’s student in fine arts, starts a new piece of pottery by wedging or slamming the clay against a table to remove all air bubbles. She rolls clay with a squeaky slab roller, throws clay on the potter’s wheel and uses the rhythmic wheel to form shapes. The clicking noises of the electric kiln or the burning noises of the gas kiln signify the artistic process is nearly complete.

Through ceramics, Weber is studying the continuity between form and pattern. Her pottery portfolio includes bowls, vases, plates, cups and other vessels — often decorated in colorful geometric shapes, flowers and designs. 

Listen to the creation of a piece of ceramic art. 

Exercising on Mars


Before astronauts explore Mars, NASA has to make sure they are healthy and fit enough for outer space. University kinesiology researchers have a solution.

Carl Ade, assistant professor of kinesiology, and his research team have designed a Martian obstacle course — complete with red rubber mulch — that resembles the terrain of Mars. The NASA-funded course simulates critical mission tasks that astronauts may perform on the red planet — unloading cargo, walking for 1.5 kilometers and rescuing a crew member.

A key piece of equipment is a portable rowing system, which NASA plans to send to outer space with astronauts to measure their fitness level during long-duration missions. Using breath-by-breath metabolic and ventilatory data and ergometers such as the rowing system, researchers can measure astronaut fitness to predict successful completion of the simulated critical mission tasks. 

Listen to the rowing machine and 1.5 kilometer walk on the Martian obstacle course. 

Fracturing and shattering


The road to stronger, safer concrete starts with the sound of it breaking.

Bob Peterman, professor of civil engineer- ing, manages the Structural Mechanics Laboratory where his research team tests the materials used to manufacture concrete railroad ties. Some machines can apply up to 400,000 pounds of force to determine the compressive strength of concrete cylinders while others pull steel reinforcing wires in tension until they break.

These tests help Peterman determine at what point concrete and other materials crack, shatter or break. His team uses that knowledge to improve concrete by making it safer and stronger.

Listen to the engineers conduct two tests: a compression test for a concrete cylinder and a tension test for a steel wire used in concrete railroad ties. 

A 'glimmer' of sound


For composer Craig Weston, sound begins with an idea: a pattern, an emotion or a tune. He often writes musical compositions in segments — one segment may focus on a faster tempo while another segment may feature only two instruments. Using notation software on the computer, Weston puts the segments together to create the finished work.

Weston, associate professor of music, has composed dozens of pieces and teaches student composition courses. He composes music for a variety of instruments in a variety of styles — from orchestral to chamber to electronic music. His newest composition, “Glimmer,” is for clarinet, cello and piano and premiered in October at the College Music Society Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Listen to Weston explain the composition of “Glimmer” and listen to the computer program play a facsimile of the final piece. 

Laser-induced thunder


Researchers at the university’s J.R. Macdonald Laboratory can use ultrafast lasers to create a thunderous sound. The laboratory, part of the physics department, hosts one of the country’s largest atomic, molecular and optical physics programs.

Physicists use the laboratory’s ultrafast lasers to expose ions, atoms, molecules, surfaces and nanostructures to short, intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation. Researchers — such as physics doctoral students Travis Severt and Brandin Davis — study these interactions to understand the properties of the systems and the dynamical processes that occur.

In one example, laser pulses are focused in air, which creates a plasma and induces a shockwave that creates sound, similar to lightning creating thunder. The frequency of the resulting sound is the repetition rate of the laser — 10,000 pulses a second from the lab’s PULSAR laser is a high squeal while the 1,000 pulses a second from the HITS laser is a much lower hum.

Listen to the high pitch of the PULSAR laser.