Fiorella Terenzi, a professor of physics and astronomy at Florida International University, has spent three decades capturing the strange, spooky symphony of the cosmos. Now, after going (largely) ignored for decades, her work is edging toward the mainstream. This isn't just for fun, though, or for the 'wow' factor of turning the rhythms of the cosmos into music. Terenzi's unorthodox research methods might reveal tiny details about the behavior of binary stars, let us listen in on the interactions of galaxies and their satellites, and reveal details about the cosmos that can be heard rather than seen.
The underlying method of Terenzi's work is close to radio astronomy, which observes distant quasars, galaxies, black holes, and stars by tuning into their radio frequency and listening for the radiation signatures an object emits. Acoustic astronomy, as she calls it, involves not just observing but listening to the pulses and sounds of space. "It uses those same data used in radio astronomy and turn them into sound," Terenzi says. "This sound may reflect chemical, physical, and dynamical property of the objects in observation."
It all started in 1987, when Terenzi was fast at work on her dissertation. Using computer music software, she processed the radio waves of the galaxy UGC 6697 into "radio-computer music astronomy" (she later settled on the name "acoustic astronomy"). By running the radio emissions through a music synthesizer program and shifting the "pitch" up to the levels we associate with music, Terenzi turned the cosmic energy into a tune, albeit not always something in 4/4 time
She didn't have much luck getting her work published back then and eventually turned her research into a side career, releasing the album Music from the Galaxies on Island Records. But in subsequent decades, the field has warmed itself more to acoustic astronomy. There's even been a collaboration between physicist George Smoot and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, called Rhythms of the Universe.
Terenzi argues that acoustic astronomy could have a wide variety of practical uses, too. A scientist could listen to binary star systems. Their music could reveal changes in a star's intensity or fluctuations in its radiation—changes that wouldn't be otherwise obvious, but could manifest themselves in audio as slight changes in pitch.
Likewise, acoustic astronomy also could be used to reveal new features in the Cosmic Microwave Background, a remnant of the big bang, by searching for irregular areas that aren't uniform in radiation. In 2009, the Naval Research Lab suggested that astronomers could listen in to find habitable exoplanets by listening for the pulsations of their magnetospheres.
The field grows ever so slightly—in addition to Terenzi and Smoot's work, there's the research of Andrew Williams at the University of Leicester, or Don Gurnett's work at NASA. Now Terenzi wants to start building sonic databases as a way to catalog what the universe sounds like, in the same way other methods provide data alongside every observation to which scientists can compare their new finds.
"Today in 2015, we have many audiofications and sonifications of celestial data. But there is not yet a central point where to start to compare to analyze our astronomy sounds," she says. "We need an Archive of Scientific Astronomy Sounds in order to start to make proper discoveries."
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