Cassiopeia A Makes Beautiful Music

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the amazing sounds of Saturn's rings, and how they have inspired composers to create their own "music of the spheres." Apparently the supernovae were feeling a little left out. This week brings news of a new musical project, "Rhythms of the Universe," which takes the light waves emitted by the supernova Cassiopeia A and "sonifies" them: turns them into sound.

The project is an unlikely collaboration between Berkeley Lab computer scientist Keith Jackson (also a musician) and Mickey Hart, the famed percussionist of the Grateful Dead. Jackson first collected the raw data from astrophysicists at Berkeley's Nearby Supernova Factory, among other projects. He then took that very high frequency electromagnetic data and slowed down the frequency sufficiently so that it was within human audible range. "Both light and sound are all wave forms — just at different frequencies," he explains in the LBL press release.

Then it was Hart's turn. He took those sounds and used them to compose "Rhythms of the Universe," which made its debut in January at the Cosmology at the Beach Conference in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, founded by 2006 Nobel Physics Laureate George Smoot. For Jackson, it was a dream come true: "It brings together my love of science, my love of music, and my love of the Grateful Dead. What more could you ask for in life?"