Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

The Aesthetics of Data


You are entering Stanford at a historic moment. Over the past months our lives have changed profoundly in ways we did not (although perhaps should have) anticipated, toward an unpredictable (but hopefully brighter) future. You have chosen a new home (albeit a virtual home for the moment). Before the quarter is over many of you will have helped to choose a new government. 

This quarter you will be exploring new paths in STEM subjects as well as in the arts and humanities. Each of these paths are increasingly reliant upon numerical data - often datasets that are large and multivariate. Finding meaning in data has become a mainstay of virtually every academic pursuit, from bioinformatics to digital humanities. Our seminar will bridge the arts, sciences and technology by exploring approaches to represent data in a manner that is meaningful, expressive, and beautiful.

Think of how bombarded we are today by numerical data –pandemic statistics, economic data, climate change statistics, data on social injustice, and, of course, predictive polling data from the Presidential election that will occur smack dab in the middle of our quarter.

Expressing data aesthetically involves creativity and some grounding in human perception and behavior. This class will introduce these topics, introduce tools and techniques, and invite you to explore new modes of expressing data and new modes of artistic expression using data.

Because of my particular expertise we will be spending a good deal of time on sound and music – and the auditory display of data. However no sensory modality is off the charts. In prior versions of the class student projects expressed data in dance, music, image, even the culinary arts!

There are no prerequisites beyond a willingness to take creative risks. 


Meet the Instructor(s)

Jonathan Berger

"I am a composer whose music often is inspired by data, and a researcher inquiring about why and how music is such a central - even addictive part of our lives. I’ve been teaching at Stanford since 1997 (after years at Yale) - and was a Stanford student.

"My current research involves recreating the acoustics of historically and culturally significant spaces - which often starts with popping balloons in churches and caves (an exercise you will be doing this quarter!). My current commissions include an opera on the murder of Eric Garner (which will be performed at Stanford later this season), and a commission from  the Kennedy Center for a work about the Mekong River."