February 1, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Who in the Universe Makes Music?

A cosmologist and some musicians want to “sonify the universe” by making music out of stellar events like supernova explosions.  In an unusual article for a science media outlet, “Reaching for the Stars to Create Music of the Universe,” Science Daily reported that Nobel laureate George Smoot was inspired by the wishes of a Grateful Dead drummer and Grammy artist Mickey Hart to make music with a bang.
    “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?”  Keith Jackson is the computer scientist bringing the cosmic data into the musicians’ recording booth.  “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?”

No, this is not going to get our Dumb award; it is fine for human beings to look to nature for inspiration for their art and music.  There is a long-standing tradition of using and imitating the sounds of nature in composition.  Respighi incorporated the songs of a nightingale in his tone poem, The Pines of Rome.  Ferde Grofe used a wind machine in Grand Canyon Suite: Cloudburst.  More recently, fluegelhornist Jeff Oster used sonified electromagnetic waves from Saturn’s magnetosphere in his piece, Saturn Calling.  Undoubtedly you can think of other examples.  Centuries ago, Johannes Kepler sensed a “music of the spheres” in the orderly laws governing planetary motion.
    What this reminds us of, though, is that music is a product of a human soul.  No one else we know is making music – no aliens, no animals (at least in the production of music for aesthetic purposes), and surely not supernovas.  Maybe angels sing – if they do, it’s because they also are sentient beings with emotions.  Finding aesthetic beauty in the sounds and workings of nature is a trademark of human nature.  It’s not purely logical, like Dr. Spock might call curious, though it overlaps with logic.  It incorporates the body and soul, the intellect and the emotions.  But we would add to this story: the only way to be grateful dead is to be right with God, both before and after your physiology attains room temperature.  What more could you ask for in life?

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Categories: Cosmology, Physics

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