How we turn stars into music

A visualization of one of the binary star observations that Robert Alexander turns into music (Photo: Robert Alexander)

A visualization of one of the binary star observations that Robert Alexander turns into music (Photo: Robert Alexander)

Robert Alexander turns astronomy into sound. The sonification specialist with the Solar Heliospheric Research Group at the University of Michigan takes data on solar wind, coronal mass ejections, binary star observations and more and makes them audible.

How? By developing algorithms to match data points to sound. He uses huge data sets from NASA observations to make discoveries and create songs. “We can use data sets translated into sound to inform us about things that are taking place way off in space that otherwise may be very abstract and esoteric,” he says in a talk at TEDxUofM. “[These sounds] describe what is happening out in the cosmos right now at this very minute.”

These recordings allow Alexander and his colleagues to glean new information about space, whether that’s the frequency of ion cyclotron wave storms or the particularities of solar wind. They also let Alexander do something a little more fun: create techno songs based on astronomy. To do this, he starts with simple sonic mappings of data sets, then transforms them into more complex — and danceable — songs with thumping beats and flourishes made from isolated star frequencies.

“[In making these songs] we’re walking this beautiful line between science and art,” he says, “and as a composer, there are so many different things I want to do with these data sets.”

Whether Alexander is mining NASA data to to glean new information about our Universe or using these observations to create songs, he always keeps in mind the power of sound — something he says we must not underestimate, especially in scientific research.

For more on Alexander’s work, watch his whole talk below:

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