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Reaching for the Stars to Create Music of the Universe

January 25, 2010
Jon Bashor (510)486-5849  JBashor@lbl.gov
Feature

Scientists are quite familiar with what a supernova looks like — when these stars are destroyed in the most massive explosions in the universe, they leave their mark as one of the brightest objects in space, at least for several weeks.

Hear supernova sounds courtesy of Keith Jackson. Images courtesy of NASA.

While the supernova can be seen, it can’t be heard, as sound waves cannot travel through space. But what if the light waves emitted by the exploding star and other cosmological phenomena could be translated into sound? That’s the idea behind a “Rhythms of the Universe,” a musical project to “sonify” the universe by Grateful Dead percussionist and Grammy award-winning artist Mickey Hart that caught the attention of Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Hart presented his composition using supernova and other astrophysics data during the Cosmology at the Beach Conference held Jan. 11-15 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The conference is cosponsored by the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics (BCCP), established by Smoot after he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006.

When a star goes out with a bang as a supernova, scientists on earth gather the electromagnetic waves from these stellar explosions to learn more about the universe, from understanding its birth 13 billion years ago, to determining what the universe is of made of, to predicting how it may eventually end.

Keith Jackson, a Berkeley Lab computer scientist who is also a musician, lent his talents to the project, starting with gathering data from astrophysicists like those at the Berkeley Lab’s Nearby Supernova Factory, which collects data from telescopes in space and on earth to quickly detect and analyze short-lived supernovas.

“If you think about it, it’s all electromagnetic data — but with a very high frequency,” Jackson said of the raw data. “What we did is turn it into sound by slowing down the frequency and ‘stretching’ it into an audio form. Both light and sound are all wave forms — just at different frequencies. Our goal was to turn the electromagnetic data into audio data while still preserving the science.”

Playing the sound on his computer, Jackson produces a deep vibrational rumble, punctuated with deeper, louder sounds — almost what one would think an earthquake sounds like.

Hart then took these sounds and further translated them to create music. The resulting composition was played on a state-of-the-art sound system and accompanied by a visual presentation of appropriate scientific images from NASA and other research institutions. Read the news release about the project.

Jackson put his experience as both a computer scientist and a performing musician to work as he helps set up the equipment for the presentation. He was also available to answer questions about the scientific side of the project, or “how we made the sounds that Mickey used to make the music.”

One of BCCP’s three focus areas is education, and the idea of translating astrophysical phenomena into sound and music grew out of discussions on how to use art to get people enthused about science.

Members of Berkeley Lab’s Computational Research Division were contacted to provide computing support, including data and conversion, for the project. Jackson was also interviewed at length as part of a documentary video being produced about the project. Other members of the Computational Research Division lending their expertise to the project were computer scientist Cecilia Aragon and scientific visualization expert Prabhat.

For Jackson, who usually applies his expertise to helping researchers around the world collaborate as they make use of leading-edge computing systems and experimental facilities, the project was a perfect match.

“It brings together my love of science, my love of music and my love of the Grateful Dead,” he said. “What more could you ask for in life?”


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