sun

The product, which composer Robert Alexander says is “in between art and science,” sounds appropriately primal and otherworldly. In one version, he used what he describes as a tribal drum beat to represent the rotation of the sun, and he layered the voice of a singer (his sister) to represent the charge state of carbon atoms, for example. “These sonifications present scientific data in a way that is immediately visceral.” (Credit: iStockphoto)

U. MICHIGAN (US)—Scientists know what solar winds look like. Now researchers have come up with a musical interpretation of what the winds might sound like, too.

Using data gathered by NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, a team from the University of Michigan has created an acoustic, or musical, representation of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emanating from the sun.

The researchers’ primary goal was to try to hear information that their eyes might have missed.

The process of sonification isn’t new: It’s how Geiger counter radiation detectors emit clicks in the presence of high-energy particles.

“What makes this project different is the level of artistic license I was given,” explains Robert Alexander, the composer and a recent graduate of Michigan’s School of Music.

The product, which Alexander says is “in between art and science,” sounds appropriately primal and otherworldly. In one version, Alexander used what he describes as a tribal drum beat to represent the rotation of the sun, and he layered the voice of a singer (his sister) to represent the charge state of carbon atoms, for example.

“Every piece of scientific data tells a story. I’m expressing this story through music. These sonifications present scientific data in a way that is immediately visceral.”

The solar wind fills the solar system and interacts with the planets, explains Jason Gilbert, a research fellow in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences. On Earth, solar storms can disrupt power on the ground and on satellites.

Scientists study it in part to improve their predictions about how it will behave.

“In this sonification, we can actually hear in the data when the temperature goes up, or when the density increases,” Gilbert says.

While the researchers didn’t detect new information in this initial experiment, they see possibilities.

“I am excited for sonification’s potential in research, but I think more work will need to be done to realize that potential,” says Jim Raines, research computer specialist with the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.

University of Michigan news: www.ns.umich.edu/