Sophie Kastner is a composer who has turned the incomprehensible into a song, turning minute details from the heart of our Milky Way into insignificant symphony notes.
“It’s like writing a fictional story that’s very much based on fact,” she said in a statement.
Her piece, “Where Parallel Lines Converge,” draws from one specific portrait of the central region of our home galaxy, aptly called the Galactic Center. Physically looking at this image can be a bit misleading. He is caught in a range of light wavelengths – X-ray, infrared and optical – by several powerful deep space imagers – NASA’s Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. Therefore, there are many random chips and streaks that represent amazing entities in the area, such as bright gas bubbles and luminous starbursts, thick paints of dust and bright star nurseries.
So instead of trying to make honest sense out of this 2009 composite image overall, Kastner decided to focus on three main aspects. The first is a double star system exposed in X-ray wavelengths, indicated by a bright blue orb on the left side of the image; the second is the group of arched filaments we see; and the third largest of them all: The supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* which lurks in our heart The Milky Way. “I wanted to draw the listener’s attention to smaller events within the larger data set,” Kastner said in a statement overview of the composition.
But let me back up a little. You might be thinking: What does this translation really mean? How can telescopic data be turned into the soundtrack of the universe itself? Well, as the saying goes, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
However, a person can see and interpret your scream.
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In a way, sound waves can be thought of as vibrations propagating through atoms and molecules floating in air. Ar World, there are many different things in our air – the waves associated with knocking on your door, for example, can travel through the air of your home to your ears. But in space, there is no “air.” It is a vacuum.
If you screamed in space, the sound waves you’d create wouldn’t actually have anything to vibrate, so someone standing a few meters away wouldn’t hear you. Even if the Galactic Center were filled with incredible sounds, we wouldn’t be able to hear them unless there were enough surrounding atoms to propagate those sound waves through. And more often than not when it comes to space objects, there aren’t enough atoms.
The “sonification project” at NASA Chandra The X-ray center is an organization dedicated to circumventing this obstacle, with the aim of bringing another human understanding into space exploration.
As long as scientists take data from X-ray telescopes, captured in wavelengths that cannot be seen by human eyes, and converted into visible forms that we can consider, the sonification project takes such data and converts it into sounds we can hear. Already, the organization has done this with a solid amount of space wonders like the supernova remnant Cassiopeia Aa gaggle of known galaxies Stephan’s Quintet and the Carina Nebula as seen by the trailblazing James Webb Space Telescope.
Sonification efforts like this are especially praised by the scientific community because “listening” to a deep space image can allow visually impaired enthusiasts to establish a deeper connection with what’s in the distant reaches of space.
To be clear, none of the songs associated with the aforementioned images are made with sounds literally recorded in space. They are audio interpretations of data, just as JWST images are optical interpretations of infrared signals.
“In some ways, this is another way for people to interact with the night sky just as they have throughout recorded history,” Kimberly Arcand, Chandra Visualization and emerging technology scientist, said in the statement. “We are using different tools, but the concept of being inspired by the Heavens to make art is the same.”
Such an interpretation is precisely what Kastner has done with his new composition, truly meeting the parallel lines of science and song — and the piece’s sheet music is available online for anyone to take a stab at .
“I like to think of it as creating short vignettes of the details, and approaching it almost as if I were writing a film score for the image,” said Kastner. “I wanted to draw listeners’ attention to smaller events in the larger data set.”
As for what exactly we’re hearing, Kastner’s song is divided into three parts that are “played” from left to right. “The light of objects located towards the top of the image is heard as higher pitches, and the intensity of the light controls the volume,” says the sonification team. “Stars and dense sources are converted into individual notes, and expanding clouds of gas and dust form an evolving drone.”
The crescendo of the song occurs when the composition hits the bright region in the lower right of the image. This is where Sgr A* resides, and where the gas and dust clouds are the brightest.
“I approached the form from a different perspective than the original specifications: Rather than scanning the image horizontally and treating the x-axis as time, I instead focused on small parts of the image creating short vignettes that correspond to the this happens, approaching the piece as if I were writing a film score to go with the image,” said Kastner. A more detailed description of the composer’s notes can be found here.
This is not to say, however, that scientists have never tried to improve the literal waves captured in space. Remember how the general lack of air in space means there isn’t much for sound waves to travel through? Well, sometimes, there are things that can propagate those vibrations.
Last year, for example, scientists decided that black hole in the Perseus collection surrounded by lots of gas that created pressure waves that were sent out of the vacuum a signature detectable by our instruments.
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“A cluster of galaxies … has a lot of gas that covers hundreds or even thousands of galaxies within it, providing a medium for the sound waves to travel,” NASA scientists said.
The resulting ripples were translated into an actual musical note, but unfortunately the note was 57 octaves below middle C. That’s too low for the human ear to detect. So, the team resynthesized the signals to the range of human hearing, 57 and 58 octaves higher. That’s 144 quadrillion and 288 quadrillion times higher than their original frequency.
It was exactly what you would expect a black hole to sound like.