The Music of Science: Exploring astronomy and space through music

UNITED KINGDOM, August 21, 2013 – When I was 5 years old my father did two things that were to have lasting and profound influence on my life. He showed me the planet Saturn through a telescope. And took me to my first opera.

I have been hooked on astronomy and opera ever since!

I could already recognize the Belt of Orion, the Big Dipper and the “W” of Cassiopeia in the night sky. Dad and I had looked at other planets before, but Saturn jumped out of the eyepiece as a three dimensional object in the vastness of space. I will never forget that moment.

Later that same year Dad took me to see Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Before we went he sat me down and told me the sad story of Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton, so that I would have some idea of the plot and characters.

I remember sitting in the darkened opera house, holding his hand, while we both cried at Butterfly’s tragic end. But I also remember being a little disappointed that she went behind a screen to plunge the knife in so I didn’t get to see any blood, gruesome child that I was!

Since then my interests have widened to encompass science and the arts in general. Fed by the likes of Carl Sagan, David Attenborough and Richard Feynman.

My greatest pleasure now is when art and science combine so The Collective will debut with an exploration of the conjunction of astronomy and music.

Where better to start than with Around Saturn by Fabio Di Donato, who perfectly combines stunning imagery from the Cassini spacecraft, unsurprisingly my favorite space mission, with music from Dmitri Shostakovich - Jazz Suite No.2: VI. Waltz 2.

My love for Saturn has never dimmed. Rather, it has been re-ignited by the images and science being returned by Cassini.

Here is Dr Carolyn Porco, head of the Cassini Imaging Team, giving a characteristically engaging TED Talk from the early days of the mission.

To return to the music of science, Star Songs is a project from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, that turns cosmic x-rays emitted by the binary system of EX Hydrae, 200 light years away, into music.

NASA’s two Voyager probes that launched in 1977 recorded electromagnetic waves from Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune during their tour of our Solar System. Those signals were then translated by NASA into strange, yet oddly familiar sounds.

Orrery by Dynamic Designs / Click to enlarge

Orrery by Dynamic Designs / Click to enlarge

Jim Bumgardner, a software engineer has created The Wheel of Stars using data from the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos mission, which pinpointed the positions of more than one hundred thousand stars with high precision.

Bumgardner plotted the brightest stars, revolving them about Polaris, the North Star. As the stars cross zero and 180 degrees, the center line plays an individual note for each star, to mesmerising effect.

There is a beautiful online orrery created by Dynamic Diagrams design studio, which allows you, among other things, to switch between the Copernican Heliocentric and Tychonian geocentric systems.

Exploratorium has an excellent site that delves into the science of music, with online exhibits, and videos, looking for answers to such questions as “Why do I hear the bass from my neighbor’s stereo, but not the treble?” and “Why does some music give me goose bumps?”

For an answer to that last question, I need look no further than this vibrant TED talk given by Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, about the transformative power of classical music and one-buttock playing!

And here is the wonderful Bobby Mcferrin demonstrating the universal power of music by playing an audience like a cheap piano!

Michael Blake is a musician who has taken the musical scale and used it to interpret Pi to 31 decimal places in What Pi Sounds Like while the ever infectious Vi Hart has a great video that explores Twelve Tone composition or dodecaphony.

Of course much great music has been inspired by astronomy and space. From David Bowie’s Space Oddity has never been more spine tingling than when performed by Commander Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

John Cage wrote his Atlas Eclipticalis by placing note paper on a star atlas and letting the arrangement of the stars determine the pattern of notes. Not sure I like the results but an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Favored is Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 2 called Copernican. Written to celebrate 500 years since he great astronomers birth, it includes words taken from his great book De Revolucionibus.

Or the Peter Eötvös piece Cosmos which includes comets and asteroids an ends “a quarter of a second before the next big bang.”

Or best of all Antonin Dvorak’s Song to the Moon from Rusalka surely one of the most beautiful arias ever written.

It’s been a long time since I was five years old and my Dad died back in 1999, but I will always be grateful for the infinite possibilities he laid before me in that year.

Thanks Dad.

In future columns I hope to share more of my favorite sites, videos and resources, covering many aspects of science and the arts. Astronomy, biology, chemistry and physics, Music, art, photography and literature. Sometimes loosely themed as here, sometimes more random.

Please email me above to let me know where you find art and science together.

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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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