i2eye with Diane Nalini de Kerckhove

i2eye with Diane Nalini de Kerckhove

A physicist celebrates the International Year of Astronomy through song
June 17, 2009
Dr. Diane Nalini de Kerckhove

Dr. Diane Nalini de Kerckhove
B. Jonathan Michaels

During the day, Diane Nalini de Kerckhove teaches astronomy and oversees the construction of Canada’s first high-resolution nuclear microprobe at the University of Guelph. After hours, she moonlights as an accomplished jazz singer. She has performed around the world for the likes of Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney and was nominated for the Grand Prix de Jazz at the 2002 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.

She recently released her fourth album, Kiss Me Like That, a mix of original songs and standards about the wonders of the stars and the sky. The album was inspired by the International Year of Astronomy 2009, which marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s turning his telescopes to the heavens.

InnovationCanada.ca (IC): Before we talk about your new album, tell me how you manage to balance two successful careers.

Diane Nalini de Kerckhove (DN): When I was an undergraduate, I was gigging pretty much every weekend, and I started this routine where during the week, I would think only about physics. Then, on the weekend, I would do my music. It was almost like rebooting my brain to physics mode every Monday morning. I once gave up music up for a few months during final exams, but I was absolutely miserable. Today, it's all about finding the balance. So in a term when I'm teaching, I'll do maybe one gig a month, and that's it, because I know I'm going to be busy teaching, doing my research and supervising my grad students.

IC: What inspired you to record an album about the human fascination with space?

DN: I was invited to go on CBC's “The Sunday Edition” just before Christmas to talk about the International Year of Astronomy and was asked, "Do you have songs you can do that are astronomy-related?" So I started making this long list — it hadn't dawned on me that quite so many of my songs have been influenced by astronomy.

IC: Tell me about the title track, "Kiss Me Like That."

DN: It's a song I wrote out of a mnemonic we teach astronomy students about the order of stars and brown dwarfs that goes: “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me Like That.” The O’s are hot, blue stars that will explode into supernovae, and the L’s and T’s are smaller and cooler brown dwarfs. The colour shifts as you go from hot to cold, and the size gets smaller and smaller. It was just going to be a ditty, then it turned into this big, serious song with astronomy metaphors for a relationship that burned hot at one point and now these people are drifting apart.

IC: That might be a little subtle for some listeners to pick up on, whereas your song "Love in Outer Space" mixes relationships and astronomy in a much more obvious way.

DN: Yes, it's about a woman looking for interstellar love, and it’s my tribute to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. In the second stanza, she says, "I sent a call on a telescope carved from stone / It had a map of my neighbourhood." That's a reference to the Arecibo Observatory, which is the biggest radio telescope in the world carved out of a hill in Puerto Rico. The Arecibo Message was a test signal sent out in the '70s that, if you reconstitute it, works out to a two-dimensional pictogram which includes the numbers from 1 to 10 and a symbolic diagram of our solar system.

IC: In addition to listeners enjoying the songs for what they are, do you hope they will be tempted to learn more about the science behind them?

DN: Oh, absolutely. That's why I set up the website www.kissmelikethat.com and posted a lot of images and explanations of the astronomy behind everything. I think you can't try to shove too much information down people's throats. You have to give them little crumbs, and then they can decide whether they want to follow the trail and connect the dots. And I hope I've struck that balance.

IC: What's next for you?

DN: I launched the album on May 24. Otherwise, I'm continuing my research at the university. I was very fortunate to get funding to build Canada's first high-resolution nuclear microprobe. It will have the capability of focusing down to the size of one micron, roughly one one-hundredth the width of a human hair. You can then sweep that beam back and forth in two dimensions and make an elemental map of what you're seeing, combining imaging and analysis.

IC: For what type of work can you use the microprobe?

DN: There are lots of different applications. Right now, I'm working with Doug Fudge and Lawrence Szewciw in the integrative biology department here at Guelph. We’re looking at bristles of whale baleen and slicing them in cross-section to study their structure in the hopes of understanding how nature makes such amazing materials. The microprobe allows us to see the concentration of various minerals and determine what roles they might play in the hardening and resiliency and flexibility of the material.