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VIDEOS: An Astrophysicist Turns Stars Into Music

Alex Parker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics takes his work home with him -- and makes stunning visualizations

Late at night, when Alex Parker is in the middle of an eight to ten-hour long calibration at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, he likes to listen to early Nine Inch Nails or Led Zeppelin to stay alert. To finish the evening, he says he switches to instrumental music. Parker was a musician long before he was an astronomer. He says music has a place in the study of the sky, particularly when creating visualizations.

“When getting into data visualization, it seemed that audio is an under-utilized resource which could enhance or, in some circumstances, replace visualization,” says Parker. To that end, he has created a series of musically rich animations that show everything from the orbits of the many potential planets captured by the Kepler mission to a patch of sky erupting with supernova each assigned a different note.

Turns out, the silent environment of outer-space lends itself quite well to a variety of musical selections. “Some astrophysical processes seem very serene and elegant, while others are sudden and phenomenally violent, and the music I would associate with each might have radically different character,” Parker explains. For his most recent project, Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates (at the top of the post), which shows potential planets picked up by the team’s measurements dancing around a single star, he went with the instrumental Nine Inch Nails song, “2 Ghosts 1.” Though the visualization is based on real data, Parker says, “The illustrated planet candidates orbit around 1770 unique stars, and packing that many planets into a single system would rapidly lead to extreme chaos.”

When creating the video for his Supernova Sonata (above), Parker began experimenting with percussive sounds, but found that coordinating the stars’ activity to generated notes provided a nice contrast to the violent detonations.

Kepler 11: A Six-Planet Sonata from Alex Parker on Vimeo.

In Kepler Sonata (above), Parker coordinated the motion of the six-planet system, Kepler 11, as detected by the Kepler observatory, to create not only a visual experience of a system’s dynamic movement but also an auditory representation.

Parker, whose father is a professional musician, says that, though he doesn’t instantly hear music in his mind when he contemplates the night sky, he is one of many observational astronomers who rely on an “Observing Playlist,” to provide a soundtrack to their work.

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About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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