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MacArthur 'geniuses' Carl Haber and David Lobell on why they won

by AirTalk®

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Carl Haber’s optical scanning and audio preservation tool, IRENE. Haber got the idea to create IRENE after hearing a report on NPR in 2000 about the Library of Congress’ backlog of rare, priceless records that were deteriorating and in need of digital preservation. IRENE is now being integrated into the work flow at the new Library of Congress’ preservation facility in Virginia. Not only does IRENE optically scan the surface of the record without ever touching it but it also generates a visual image of the record’s surface which can “erase” some of the surface noise of crackles and hisses that crop up over time. Image Source: Sheraz Sadiq kqedquest/Flickr

Among the 24 recipients of the just-announce MacArthur Genius Grants for 2013 is physicist Carl Haber, who has applied the technology used to study subatomic particles at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at UC Berkeley to restoring sounds thought long gone.

In a post on the lab’s website, Haber says:

"About 10 years ago, I happened to hear a report on NPR about the Library of Congress and their large collections of historic sound recordings, which described them in some cases as being delicate, damaged, deteriorating and so forth. Using scientific cameras and measurement tools that just use light, we create essentially a picture ... and then write a program where the computer analyzes the image and calculates mathematically how the needle would move rather than use the needle.”

The result was bringing the voices of America’s past, including Alexander Graham Bell and a Native American speaking a language now gone, back to life.  

"In the modern era, when you think phonograph, you think of this sort of disc," said Haber on AirTalk. "As you go back in time, particularly into the 19th century, there was a huge diversity of materials, formats, shapes and sizes of things that people tried to record sound on, mostly experimentally – tin foil, paper, disc cylinders, discs of aluminum foil, sheets of aluminum foil, all different sorts of waxes — just a whole variety of different things.”

What Haber and has developed is a way to scan old records, no matter what surface or shape, to create high-resolution digital images. These images are then analyzed and the once-missing data can be recovered and the music can be played. 

“I don’t want to overstate things, but I really feel like anything that has sound recorded on it in the form of a groove or other image-able structures, we can play back if there is information left to retrieve," said Haber. 

RELATED: What Caltech MacArthur fellow Colin Camerer will do with the money

One of the youngest MacArthur Geniuses is Stanford’s David Lobell, 34. His research asks very tough questions about how climate change will affect food security for all of humanity.

“We’re not really in the business of saying exactly what will happen in 10 or 20 years. There are a lot of problems with trying to do that," said Lobell on AirTalk. "What we’re trying to say is: these are the things that we’re pretty confident if you do, then you’ll be better off.”

The agricultural ecologist explains, "I'm interested in how to feed the world and protect the environment at the same time … . While there are many theories about how to do that, my work tries to test these theories, often using data that were collected for completely different reasons."

Lobell is optimistic that good public policy can ensure food supplies. What does his work mean for California? How have his world travels influenced his research?

RELATED: Calif. physicist one of 24 MacArthur 'genius grant' recipients

Carl Haber, physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at UC Berkeley and one of 24 recipients of 2013 MacArthur Genius Grants

David Lobell, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science, Stanford University and one of 24 recipients of 2013 MacArthur Genius Grants

Click here for more stories on scholars' work in recovering lost sounds

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