[Smt-talk] Music of the Spheres (literally!:)

art samplaski agsvtp at hotmail.com
Wed Nov 12 11:00:04 PST 2014

Dear list folks,

Given today's magnificent achievement of the European Space Agency's successful
landing by the Philae probe on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (called just

"67P" by everybody:), I think it is fitting to mention a couple of items about _real_
space music (i.e., NOT the sound tracks to 2001, Trek, and Star Wars:), for our
students' benefits and our own. (My apologies for the length.)


Some SMT members may not be aware of a growing connection between scientific
analysis and musical sound--the use of "sonification" to convert data of various
kinds (X-rays, magnetic fields, radio, cosmic ray hits, etc.) into audible signals.
Doing so not only gives access for blind researchers to study "visual" data in ways

not previously possible, but sighted researchers can often pick up on changes in

the evolution of a phenomenon, via timbre changes, that might have gone unnoticed

otherwise. In the U.S. National Public Radio has run 2 stories on sonification this

year; links are here:





The plasma detection by Voyager 1 that proved it had crossed over the border into
interstellar space in Aug. 2012 is mentioned in the second item. The MP3 file
itself, sans voice-over, is available here:


The 2 bits of sounds above the hiss are sonfications of data from solar eruptions
that swept past V'ger several months apart; the rise in pitch indicated a significant
change in plasma density exactly consistent with leaving the bubble of gas surrounding
the Sun and entering the interstellar medium.



Re today's event, the magnetometer on Rosetta registered oscillations in the comet's
magnetic field as it reached rendezvous with 67P in August--in effect, sounds (albeit
at ca. 40 milli-Hz). A short stretch of the sounds have been raised up 13+ octaves;
an audio link is at this story:


A bit of the old Ludwig Van it ain't, but it's quite fascinating.:)



The grandest scale of space music is the Cosmic Microwave Background--the afterglow
of the Big Bang, the moment of creation 13.8 billion years ago. The CMB reflects
the point some 300,000+ years later when the universe cooled down enough to become
transparent. Density variations while it was still a hot opaque fog of subatomic
particles caused oscillations--literal acoustic waves across the entire universe,
with harmonics of different amplitudes--which became frozen onto the CMB. Through
detailed study over the last 20 years, astronomers have made significant progress
in constraining possible models of the past and future evolution of the universe.

Wayne Hu at the University of Chicago has beginning and intermediate tutorials on
the CMB and efforts to read off its harmonics (a complete understanding, especially
of #2, does require some math chops, btw...):





Finally, something a bit closer to home for any present-day-Pythagorean wannabes:
the Earth has been found to "hum" at ca. 4.4 milli-Hz. (The Sun also undergoes such
oscillations.) I know of no sonifcation efforts towards such data, but interested
folks can begin a lit search with Suda, Nawa, and Fukao's 1998 article in _Science_
(v.279, 2089-2091), "Earth's Background Free Oscillations."


SO--a new angle with which to show music's (well, orchestration's:) relevance to
school administration budget writers!:)

Art Samplaski

Ithaca, NY
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