Albert Einstein

The Sounds of Space Teach Us More About the Universe

They say that in space, no one can hear you scream. It's true — space is a vacuum, and sound waves need an atmosphere to be heard. So technically, in space, no one can hear you do anything. But astronomers still use sound to make a whole range of observations, and the sounds they hear can only be described as otherworldly.

Turn Up the Universe

Space looks empty, but it's actually abuzz with activity. If your eyes worked at the quantum level, you'd see all sorts of particles whipping around in the form of light, solar wind, and cosmic radiation. If they were in Earth's atmosphere, those particles would make quite a racket, but in space, we can only identify their existence with specialized detectors that record the particular frequencies at which they vibrate and spin and ricochet through the void.

But once they have the data, scientists will often turn those frequencies into ones we can hear. Why? Because our sense of hearing is surprisingly sharp. "The auditory system is the best pattern-recognition device that we know of," Georgia Institute of Technology professor Bruce Walker told Scientific American. "If you're looking through a data set and trying to understand what's going on, it's often easier and more efficient to listen to the sound of it rather than looking at a screen or a printed version."

Hear the Sounds of Space

Just take the sound of plasma waves, churning disturbances in the charged particles that surround our planet thanks to solar weather. Knowing how those particles move can teach scientists more about how they reach Earth and cause power failures. Look at the spectrogram of a series of plasma waves, and you can logically deduce how they behave. But listen to them, and it's as clear as day — the rising tones of chorus waves or the space-age cacophony of whistler waves tell you everything you need to know about how the particles within them are moving.

High-Dispersion "Whistlers" Caused by Lightning Discharges

Chorus "Risers" Caused by Particles Striking the Atmosphere

One of the most famous sounds of the cosmos lately has to be the first evidence of gravitational waves. When ripples in the fabric of spacetime emanated from the collision of two black holes to reach our planet, the twin detectors of LIGO recorded the distortions visually on a photodetector. But scientists quickly converted that data into sound waves, creating the single "chirp" that represented Albert Einstein's century-old prediction coming true.

The "Chirp" of LIGO's Gravitational Wave Detection

Of course, turning data into sound isn't just good for scientists; it's good for the public, too. Everyday people like you or me might not fathom the meaning behind numbers in a study or lines on a graph, but hearing the sounds of the universe makes them personal, even spiritual. It's one way to bring the wonder of science to the masses.

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Hear the story of the first discovery of gravitational waves in "Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space" by Janna Levin. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 1, 2017

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