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Meet the colorful 'Musical Chemist' from Knoxville who shows people how to hear the elements

Walker Smith is a self-proclaimed "musical chemist" who has captured the sounds of elements on the periodic table and created a stage show for the senses.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On the stage, he goes by Roy G. Biv. He says the “G” stands for Gary. But in “everyday life,” Walker Smith is a self-proclaimed musical chemist. The Knoxville native has combined his love of music and science to stage a show for the senses. Scroll his YouTube channel “Chemistry Shack” and you’ll come across his presentation, “The Sound of Molecules”.

In his performance, dressed head to toe in a rainbow-colored suit, Smith looks out into the crowd and says, “You should buckle up your seatbelt because things are about to get ‘elemental’…HIT IT!”

From that point on Smith takes his audience on a journey of light and sounds of the elements found on the periodic table.

We interviewed Smith via Zoom from Indiana University where he graduated in December.  He described his molecular musical this way.     

“It’s a nice light show like an EDM party thing. It’s a lot of fun, kids love it. They are always dancing and jumping up and down unprompted.”   

As a student growing up in Knoxville, Smith took up the guitar and played the clarinet in his high school band all while having a makeshift science lab in the family’s garage. At the age of 13, Smith was awarded an internship at Oak Ridge National Lab, the youngest intern ever at the national lab at that point.  Smith made the connection between chemical properties and sound while in college and for an entire semester, he created the presentation.

Credit: Alain Barker

“Elements, if you heat them or zap them with electricity or give them energy in some way, the electrons that are hanging around in the nucleus gain a bunch of energy. When they drop, they will release that stored energy as light.”

Smith took the light frequencies and converted them into sounds.  Each element is unique. He says hydrogen sounds almost angelic while oxygen is much bolder.

His molecular melodies recently landed him in front of scientists from around the country at the American Chemical Society meeting earlier this year.

“I would not have imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would be wearing a rainbow suit four out of five days of the conference, presenting on music at a chemistry conference.”

Walker hopes his sounds of science can be used as a teaching tool in classrooms to inspire future musicians, scientists, or like him, musical scientists.

“Both the performance and the musical periodic table could fall well into the category of what chemical educators would call ISE, Informal Science Education, but making it super fun.” 

Smith plans to build on his musical and scientific studies. He’s accepted a Ph.D. position at Stanford University and a Fulbright scholarship to the Netherlands.

He will be performing “The Sound of Molecules” at Pellissippi State Community College’s Hardin Valley campus. The presentation is Tuesday, May 9th at 6:00 pm in room 1017.

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