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Thu Dec 10, 2020, 07:33 PM

This is what a supernova sounds like, according to NASA [View all]

By Brandon Specktor - Senior Writer 11 hours ago

NASA's new project turns up the volume on space's most extreme phenomena.

The Crab Nebula sounds oddly beautiful.
(Image: © NASA)

In space, nobody can hear you scream — or explode, or collapse, or slowly collide with a neighboring galaxy. But now, thanks to a new "data sonification" program at NASA, you can at least get a sense of what some of the most extreme phenomena in the universe might sound like when converted to sound played by Earthly instruments.

To hear what that sounds like, we turn to NASA's Chandra X-ray center — which has been imaging distant galaxies with its Chandra X-ray observatory for 20 years now. (Apparently, just seeing the wonders of the cosmos was not enough for them.) In their new initiative, Chandra researchers have taken three iconic images from their archives and translated different frequencies of light into different pitches of sound.

Take the following video of the crab nebula (a supernova remnant powered by a windy neutron star). In NASA's data sonification of the nebula, X-ray light (blue and white) is represented by brass instruments; optical light (purple) is played by string instruments; and infrared light (pink) is represented by woodwinds. The pitch of each instrument family increases from the bottom of the image to the top, so many tones are audible at the same time. The sounds converge near the center of the nebula, where a rapidly swirling pulsar is blasting gas and radiation in all directions. Listen below:


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Picture Gallery » The Music of the Spheres

The Music of the Spheres

In ancient Greece, Pythagoras and his followers thought that celestial bodies made music. This diagram attempts to represent such theories about the earth’s relationship to other planets—an idea, based in physical truths and metaphysical beliefs, that the divine and poetic order of the universe could be known.

Pythagoras had already discovered the workings of musical pitch by way of vibration. In his book Fermat’s Enigma, author Simon Singh quotes fourth-century scholar Iamblichus to describe this account:

“Once, he was engrossed in the thought of whether he could devise a mechanical aid for the sense of hearing which would prove both certain and ingenious. Such an aid would be similar to the compasses, rules and optical instruments designed for the sense of sight. Likewise the sense of touch had scales and the concepts of weights and measures. By some divine stroke of luck he happened to walk past the forge of a blacksmith and listened to the hammers pounding iron and producing a variegated harmony of reverberations between them, except for one combination of sounds.” (14)

Pythagoras reportedly examined the hammers, and concluded that the hammers that were harmonious with one another shared a relationship in their respective weights—they were simple fractions such as one half or one quarter. Thus, he rationalized that 1:2 ratios produced an “octave” — the same note with a higher pitch. Other ratios produced different harmonies. This can be evidenced in string instruments, where strings of different lengths (ratios) produce different tones.


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3.7 Music of the Spheres and the Lessons of Pythagoras


At this point, we have covered a number of topics and some history of physics, so it is important to step back and understand where we are before going on.

I. Using simple mathematics, Pythagoras was able to describe the basis of almost all musical scales, including the pentatonic, the Western, the chromatic and the Arabic scales. This shows the power and excitement of science. For the first time, Pythagoras could answer the question, WHY? Why are these notes and scales special? The answer is that they are formed in a simple, systematic, and mathematical manner. Most importantly, Pythagoras showed that the notes are not random or arbitrary and that they could be understood on a deeper level.

II. Pythagoras�s discoveries bring up a deeper �psychology� question: scales were first developed by ear: we � and the Neanderthals � choose these particular notes before there was any understanding of mathematics or physics. The notes were chosen simply because they were pleasing to the ear. But, as it turns out, the scales also follow basic mathematical constructs. So the question is, what does this say about our likes and emotions? Is there a mathematical/physical basis to them, as well?

III. The power of spectroscopy. What Pythagoras did was look a physical system (the musical scale), found characteristic frequencies (pitches/notes) and found simple mathematical relationships between the frequencies (ratios of 3/2, for example). This process actually became a fundamental part of physics, and modern physics, in particular.


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