Musical Instruments for Extraterrestrials

Gamma ray bells? A gravitational cello? This instrument maker starts by assuming his listeners aren’t human.

Cello for alien ears
The gravitational waves created by this “cello” may be tiny, but they’ll travel at light speed—perhaps to alien ears.

Jonathon Keats has a plan to communicate with aliens. Not by beaming a signal or launching a space probe with a golden record on board. Instead, the conceptual artist and experimental philosopher has built a collection of unconventional instruments that produce music for alien “ears.” If anyone hears, he hopes it will respond.

But how does one create music for unknown cosmic beings? For starters, assume they are not human. To produce sound in a range of frequencies far above what a human can hear, Keats and sculptor Amelia Pate created the ultrasonic organ. A foot pump forces air through eight whistles to produce an unverifiable alien sonata.

Keats also considered the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma ray bells exploit the radioactive decay from a radium watch dial and a uranium marble. Rhythmically lifting the handbell-shape lead casings that conceal the radioactive material creates a gamma ray tempo. A gravitational cello (above) is played by swinging ball bearings of different masses to release gravitational waves.

The collection, called Intergalactic Omniphonics, is even prepared for a performance: Keats scored a Universal Anthem, inspired by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which accounts for the relationships between all forms of energy.

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This story is a selection from the December/January issue of Air & Space magazine

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