Science TED Fellows

Rhythms of starlight, melodies of astrophysics: Fellows Friday with Lucianne Walkowicz

Mock-up of a proposed installation in which live chanting triggers the sounds of the stars. The orange squares are meditation cushions arranged in the shape of the Kepler telescope’s detectors, and the projection is of the star field from which the data originate – near the constellations of Cygnus (the swan) and Lyra (the harp). Image: Lucianne Walkowicz

Mock-up of a proposed installation in which live chanting triggers the sounds of the stars. The orange squares are meditation cushions arranged in the shape of the Kepler telescope’s detectors, and the projection is of the star field from which the data originate – near the constellations of Cygnus (the swan) and Lyra (the harp). Image: Lucianne Walkowicz

Ever wondered what the music of the cosmos sounds like? You’re about to find out. Astrophysicist and TED Senior Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz works on the Kepler mission, looking at a patch of our galaxy to learn about stars and their planets. During an interview at TED2013, she mentioned that she is also an artist and has begun composing music woven from star data, after feeling inspired by the work of Fellows like data artist Julie Freeman. Here, she tells us how this is done:

“One of the things I like about science is that I can entertain myself by looking at the world and thinking about what’s happening at a microscopic or macroscopic level. It makes me feel like I have access to an additional dimension of information that’s around me all the time.

Recently I’ve started doing sound installations based on the data that I use for my own work. The Kepler mission finds planets and studies stars by measuring how stars get brighter and dimmer with time. Planets block some of the starlight as they pass in front of the star, making little dips in the stars’ brightness that tell us the planet is there.

However, stars periodically appear brighter and darker on their own because they have bright and dark patches on their surfaces caused by the star’s magnetic field. As it spins, we see light fluctuate as the patches rotate into and out of view – and the frequency of the fluctuation tells us how fast it’s spinning. To make things a bit more complicated, stars don’t rotate exactly like tops, in that different latitudes on the star spin at different rates – so usually there are several frequencies in the star’s light, and they can change and drift in time.

I take the data and search for which frequencies are present at different times, then scale them to frequencies the human ear can hear, using a sine-wave generator. Then I create tones that change with time to represent how the frequencies in the star are changing. A first pass sounds like this: in each second of playback, you hear the three strongest frequencies in the star for a day of real time. As you listen, the sounds change as the frequencies change.

Then I do some additional processing to get the effect I want. Usually I want to capture some echo to convey a sense of vast space, and some blending between notes to convey the dynamic nature of the features on the star’s surface that are creating the changes in the star’s light. It sounds like this:

I do this for multiple stars, and can then weave them into compositions along with other samples. It sounds like this:

In the following piece, Powerful Protectors, I’ve woven the sounds of two stars in with samples of Buddhist chanting around the world. The composition is about how people try to access deeper knowledge about our universe.

As a scientist, communicator and educator, I am driven by wanting to share with others how science offers access to a deeper dimension of information. But sometimes you end up at odds with people who have looked for other ways to explain or address mysteries in their lives, and in fact some people feel alienated from science.

Many people seek deeper meaning through religion, which is often (though not always) at odds with science. I chose these chants for their rhythmic qualities, similar in nature to the periodic frequencies of the stars I study. As the piece evolves, the sounds weave together – sometimes blending and complementing one another, but sometimes battling and drowning one another out.”