There are any number of paths to an environmental epiphany: For many people it was the first time they heard the recorded song of the humpback whale.
After a three-year “walkabout” in Baja California, an artist and software designer named Mark Fischer became fascinated by cetacean acoustics. As a trained computer engineer, he soon realized that the visual representations of whale song had not advanced much beyond crude graphs and spectrograms. There was nothing that adequately captured the sheer beauty of sounds that can be louder than a jet engine and as melodic as the human voice.
Fischer found his solution in the mathematical theory of wavelets, which he applied to sounds from different frequencies, translating them into color-coded visual forms. “It’s a kind of photography to me,” Fischer says, “with mathematics as the lens and the computer as the camera.” He calls the result “the shape of the sound.”