The blink comparator and The Rural Alberta Advantage’s Barnes’ Yard

It’s been two months now since I started writing regularly about science and music as the DJ at the online science pub The Finch & PeaIt has quickly become one of my favourite things to do each week. To celebrate I’m posting a few of my favourites here at Boundary Vision. These are the ones that most represent to me the intersection between science and culture that I aim for here. Enjoy!

With rich dark wooden curio cabinets and a narrow book-filled balcony accessed by a steep staircase, the Rotunda at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff feels like a natural home for the distinguished early 20th century scientist. Feeling the warm glow of scientific discoveries past, there was one thing in the room I couldn’t take my eyes off: the glass plates and elegant brass eyepiece of the blink comparator used to discover Pluto.

Click, click. Click, click. As you peer through the eyepiece, the blink comparator shifts what you see back and forth between two photographic images of the same part of the sky taken several hours apart. Both version will be will be identical unless there is something there that isn’t a star. Stars are so far from us that they appear not to move in the night sky. The movement we see is because of our rotation with the Earth. Planets and satellites, though, are much closer and move a great deal more relative to us. Over the course of a few hours, their motion would stand out in contrast to the stars. The famous plates on exhibit at the Lowell are identical except for one small dot that moves horizontally as the comparator switches between them. That dot was the first visual evidence for the planet Pluto.

The blink comparator is a beautiful piece of antique science equipment, and it highlights how important patterns and repetition are in science. Repeated measurements can lead to generalized relationships, like equations for describing motion and reactions. Subtle discrepancies in those measurements can point to planets orbiting distant stars. Patterns and repetition, like those created in the blink comparator, are essential to making sense of the natural world.

The Rural Alberta Advantage‘s Barnes’ Yard, from their 2011 album Departing, is a blink comparator song. It’s built on repeated lines with often only subtle changes in between. The narrative builds slowly with a little more given away each time a line is repeated.  All other elements stay in the same place but the one important part comes to our attention because it’s the moving dot. Through the repetition, the words themselves also become part of the percussion, made even more prominent because drummer Paul Banwatt (who rocks, by the way) leaves out the complex patterns this time and plays it mostly straight and simple (you’ll have to check out the album version to hear him). Given the chance, I’d love to play this loud and ringing off the bookshelves at the Lowell.

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared at The Finch & Pea on February 11, 2012.

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