Newest Addition to Texas Tech Public Art Collection Takes on Acoustical Mystery

The newest addition to Texas Tech University’s Public Art Collection is a shining stainless steel sphere that lets you hear the sound of the sun, as a acoustical fluke that has bothered musicians for centuries.

The newest addition to Texas Tech University’s Public Art Collection is titled "Comma" by artist Po Shu Wang. It was commissioned by Texas Tech in September 2005.

The shining stainless steel sphere was installed on April 17 between the Student Union Building and the Library.

Wang’s sculpture encourages passersby to interact with and muse on natural phenomena, such as what sounds the movement of the earth’s crusts makes or what sounds the sun makes.

"Although not always audible, the natural world is full of vibrations that can be measured as sounds. In other words, the world ‘hums’ its own tune. This is true of the planets and stars, as well as the molecules and atoms of our DNA," Wang said.

The sun, like Wang’s sculpture, is a spherical resonator. Acoustical waves bounce from one side of the sun to the other, causing its surface to oscillate and make a sound.

By pushing the knob attached to his sculpture at Texas Tech, viewers can, in essence, sample the sound of the sun. This is made possible because of two specially tuned bronze bells inside the sphere.

The sphere contains two specially made bells, tuned at slightly different pitches. The first is tuned to 1782.6 Hz, which is the musical tonal center of the sun. The second is tuned at one Comma interval from the first.

The Comma, a musical acoustical phenomenon, is a very small interval between two enharmonic notes. This minute difference in pitch has upset listeners’ natural instinctive sensibility for harmonics throughout history and across cultures.

"In natural harmonics, the notes should sound the same over many octives," said Wang. "For example a high C and a low C are the same note, but when you hear them together, you know instinctively that it’s different."

It’s a fluke that has bothered musicians for centuries.

"All music tradition has been bothered by the Comma," "People from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, have called it kind of an evil philosophically because it upsets the otherwise natural harmony."

Pythagoras of ancient Greece is thought to have been the first to explore the phenomenon mathematically, and the Comma was eventually neutralized through Johann Sebastian Bach’s promotion of the equal temperament tuning system.

Bach split the Comma among the 12 notes of an octave so that we can more easily ignore the even smaller mismatches. The Temperament Tuning System is in use today.

Po Shu Wang grew up in Hong Kong. The artist received classical training in sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Yet, today, the artist aims to blend art with science.

His public works can be found in numerous cities in the United States and abroad, including the Saatchi and Saatchi Museum of London, Oregon State University’s Kelley Engineering Center, Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, the Anchorage Museum of History, and many others.

The bell on the east side produces the sound of the sun’s sound waves. The west-side bell is tuned one comma interval from the first. The comma is a naturally occurring fluke of physics that causes the sound to be different.

The Comma is one of 84 pieces of public art displayed across the Texas Tech university campus. Texas Tech has been ranked one of the top 10 university public art collections in the country.

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CONTACT: Cecilia Carter Browne, public art manager, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-1170, extension 319, or e-mail cecilia.carter@ttu.edu.