Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the August, 2015 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything." - PlatoThroughout history philosophers, artists and scientists have made reference to the music of the universe. Often these comments have been labeled as metaphors. However recent scientific revelations have turned the metaphors into literal reality. According to physicist Janna Levin, "...the universe has a soundtrack." She points out that we experience the universe primarily through light. But she feels that there is much to be learned by listening to what the universe is telling us about what's going on and what has gone on. One compelling example is black holes. Learning about black holes through the use of light is very limiting since they swallow light. But "black holes can be heard even if they're not seen. And that's because they bang on space-time like a drum."
The nature of space was detailed in Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Rather than being an empty nothingness he proposed that space combines with time to form a fabric that is an actual substance. In Levin's picture of a situation that is ubiquitous in the universe, two black holes are spinning rapidly in orbit around each other. And "...as they do so they not only curve space but they leave behind in their wake a ringing of space; an actual wave on space-time which squeezes and weaves and stretches as it emanates out from these black holes banging on the universe. "
And recently two physicists have presented a musical composition that extends the sound to the universe itself. Harry Ringermacher and Lawrence Mead (University of Southern Mississippi) published a paper in The Astronomical Journal positing that the speed of universal expansion has varied significantly since the Big Bang. "We found that the universe has been wiggling during its expansion and that 7 such "cycles" or oscillations have occurred since the beginning of time." They have also found that the "harmonics" of the wiggles correspond to the sounds produced by musical instruments. Interestingly these observations are having an impact on current cosmological theories like dark matter and the standard model of big bang cosmology. If the theory sounds true it might make the history of the universe ring clear as a bell. Gustav Hoist captured my imagination on this topic, a little closer to home, with his composition The Planets from the powerful Mars, Bringer of War to the ethereal Neptune, the Mystic. More recently NASA's Voyager probes toured the Solar System sampling the actual music of the planets. As we know, sound does not propagate in the relative. vacuum of space. But the probes were able to capture the electromagnetic waves emanating from the planets which generate haunting and compelling sounds. It's really worth listening to both the Holst and the Voyager compositions.
In the immortal words of Alan Watts:
"Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence."
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this page last updated 5 September 2015
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