Spaced Out: 'The Space Composer' is Making Music With the Sun

To sonify is to make beauty available to our human senses through sound. And, through the work of artist and NASA fellow Robert Alexander, it's also a means to discovery.

Sonification is a simple concept: translating information into sound. A synthesizer could be considered a form of sonification: taking a predetermined electrical frequency and mating it with a speaker to possibly pleasurable result--or at least interestingly unpleasurable. Just that is one of the best things ever, and by screwing around with those frequencies, usually adding or subtracting them, we can make just about any sound imaginable. Just by playing around with some numbers, you can make a violin, handclap, human voice, guitar, or really anything else.

We've figured out over a fairly recent history that most anything in the universe can be made audible as long as it has associated data/numbers. And, of course, anything you can think of does (brain waves, pulsars, whatever). A generated electrical frequency isn't quite the same thing as solar wind, but there's good reason one can be made into sound and the other can't. It's just a matter of translation. In doing so, we can hear the universe. Sometimes this adds to our appreciation, or gives us a way of experiencing something distant in the cosmos that otherwise we might just have to conceptualize through diagrams, or through the words of scientists. 

Coronal Mass Ejections, giant bubbles of magnetically-charged gas from the sun, disrupt the flow of the solar wind and produce disturbances that strike the Earth with sometimes catastrophic results. They occur at least once a week; this CME captured by SOHO occured on April 7th, 1997

To sonify, then, is to make beauty available to our human senses--a way to understanding but also, through the work of artist and NASA fellow Robert Alexander, a means to discovery. For three years, Alexander has worked with the University of Michigan's Solar Heliospheric Research Group, in a project he concocted, sonifying the sun using data captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a NASA/ESA spacecraft that for 17 years has been staring at the sun, providing our most reliable source of near real-time data about solar weather. He's rendered solar flares as a human choir, and turned the sun's rotation into a a tribal beat. 

The result isn't just good music. After noticing a particular hum in his sonification, Alexander eventually pointed the way to a discovery: using sound is a great way to detect carbon levels, which is in turn are useful for measuring the temperatures of solar flares--those fantastic bursts of energy from our star that can disrupt radio communications, electrical grids, and satellites here on Earth. The resulting paper was published last year in the Astrophysical Journal, and helped earn Alexander another year in his NASA fellowship.

In this episode of Spaced Out, Motherboard visited Alexander in his lab at the University of Michigan to learn about how sonification is cracking the universe open. "I think of myself as an explorer," he says. "I live in the space between art and science and technology." Arguably, it's one of the most crucial and developing spaces in knowledge.