Total Eclipse Sonification


Who saw yesterday’s solar eclipse?! I was able to catch a glimpse through a neighbor’s glasses at the park — the sight was so magical that I went straight home and started a new song called “Crescent Sun”. I also wanted to see if there were any other ways that musicians were honoring the rare celestial event, and through my research I discovered a fascinating musical performance that took place yesterday at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The Kronos String Quartet improvised an accompaniment to real-time eclipse sonification. In front of a live audience, the quartet performed music based on corresponding images and tones as they were transmitted by a live feed from four telescopes based in Casper, Wyoming, which was in the zone of totality of the eclipse. Here, I will explain:

In the core of the sun, nuclear particles collide with such a force that they cause an explosion called “nuclear fusion”. Fusion produces a helium nucleus and an abundance of light, the particles of which are called “photons”. About eight minutes after leaving the sun, the photons arrive on planet Earth. Yesterday in Casper, Wyoming, four telescopes captured these photons and converted them to a digital image, each photon affecting one pixel based on brightness. The pixels were sent by radio back into space, where a satellite relayed the signal to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. There, the digital information was fed into a customized software which used the high definition solar images and details of the pixelation gradient to create a unique corresponding sound. The arriving pixels generated an audible pitch, and the Kronos Quartet played along. The musicians accompanying the eclipse offered a rich sonic background that gradually changed as the moon moved in front of the sun. Exploratorium officials also stated that the technology “incorporates algorithms based on the movement of the planets visible during the dark sky of totality to create the sonification.” Incredible!

The producer of this eclipse sonification was Wayne Grim, a Bay Area composer and sound artist. “The experience of translating astronomical events into music is profound,” Grim said. “You get a chance to listen to light, to understand the relationship between the sun, the moon, and the Earth in a new way.” It is simply brilliant that a set of data can be captured, ran through algorithms, mapped and translated to another form of communication — as has been done from light to sound, in this case. I am curious what else in this world has been “sonified”. 🙂 

 

Photo By NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres, Solar Dynamics Observatory [Public domain]