Celestial Music, at your fingertips

In the renaissance an scholar was considered educated only after mastering the so-called "quadrivium", which consisted of four subjects: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Now, a group of astrophysicists has updated the classical quadrivium, by deriving music from astronomical data.

Researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA, led by Dr Gerhard Sonnert, have developed a website that produces music made from star-generated sounds. These "star sounds" consist of recordings of X-ray and other signals captured by radiotelescopes that are turned into sound thanks to a program designed by the authors. Dr. Diaz-Merced, a physicist who has been blind since her early 20s, uses this "sonification" process to listen for unusual sounds. Sonification is far more effective at scanning large datasets for signals that could be obscured by other recordings or inadequacies in the recording equipment. Then, Dr Sonnert, who is also a bass player, noticed that the sounds that came from the sonification process resembled Afro-Cuban musical rhythms, and contacted his cousin, composer Volkmar Studtrucker, who turned the data sounds into music. 

The team started with X-ray sounds emanating from a system of two stars about 200 light years from Earth. Called the EX Hydrae, the system is made of a normal-sized star and a white dwarf. The white dwarf has been extracting matter from its partner star and, in doing so, it creates seemingly random outpourings of light and other energy. These outpourings were then captured by radiotelescopes on earth. Listening to the sonified data is an effective way to pick up random blips, chirps and other noises, but it is not jazz. Studtrucker's compositions based on the data, however,  are jazz. They also are blues, a rock ballad, a fugue and other forms of music. Studtrucker composed nine different songs in total, all based on the Ex Hydrae data. The results are surprisingly musical, and are available at their website.


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