For the first time in history, earthlings can hear what a black hole sounds like: a low groan, as if a very creaking heavy door were opening again and again.
NASA released a 35 second audio clip sound earlier this month using electromagnetic data extracted from the Perseus galaxy cluster, some 240 million light-years away.
The data had been lying around since it was collected nearly 20 years ago by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The decision to turn it into sound only came recently, as part of NASA’s efforts over the past two years to translate its stunning space photography into something that can be enjoyed by ear.
“I started the first 10 years of my career only really paying attention to the visual, and realized that I had done a disservice to people who weren’t visual learners or people who were blind. or visually impaired,” NASA visual scientist Kimberly Arcand told NPR in an interview with weekend edition.
While Perseus’ audio tries to replicate what a black hole actually looks like, Arcand’s other “sonifications” are more or less creative interpretations of images. In these imaginative renditions, each type of material – gaseous cloud or star – gets a different sound; elements near the top of images have a higher tone; bright spots are stronger.
For more examples of NASA sonifications, visit the agency’s website Universe of sound Web page. Or read on to learn more from Arcand about the company.
On how black hole audio was created
What we’re listening to is basically a re-sonification, so a data sonification of an actual sound wave in this cluster of galaxies where there’s this supermassive black hole at the core that’s belching and sending out all these waves, if you will. And the scientists who initially studied the data were able to find out what the note was. And it was basically a B-flat about 57 octaves below middle C. So we took this sound that the universe was singing about, and then brought it back into the range of human hearing – because we certainly can’t hear 57 octaves below middle C.
On the sonification of an image of the center of the Milky Way
So we take the data and extrapolate the information we need. We really pay attention to scientific history to make sure that converting light to sound is something that makes sense to people, especially people who are blind or have low vision. So our Milky Way galaxy — this inner region — is really that kind of energetic zone where there’s just a lot of frenetic activity going on. But if we look at a different galaxy that’s maybe a little calmer, a little more restless at its core, it might look completely different.
On the sonification of the “Pillars of Creation” photograph of the Eagle Nebula in the constellation Serpens:
It’s like a stellar nursery. These tall columns of gas and dust where stars form and you’re listening to the interaction between the x-ray information and the optical information and it’s really trying to give you some text.
These soundscapes being created can really bring a bit of emotion to material that might otherwise sound quite esoteric and abstract.
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