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The Real Explosions in the Sky: Supernovae Translated into Music [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Tycho's supernova remnantWhat does a supernova sound like? Hopefully we will never find out directly—getting within earshot of an exploding star is probably a bad idea.

But a pair of researchers has nonetheless devised a way to represent supernovae in an auditory way, and the result is a rather interesting piece of abstract music. University of Victoria graduate student Alex Parker and University of California, Santa Barbara, postdoctoral researcher Melissa Graham made the video below using telescope observations of nearly 250 type Ia supernovae. Those cataclysms occur when a small, dense star known as a white dwarf grows too massive, becomes unstable, and explodes in a thermonuclear blast.

As Parker notes on his Web page, he and Graham assigned each supernova a piano or upright bass note, depending on the kind of galaxy where the supernova went off—massive host galaxies get bass notes, whereas less massive galaxies get piano notes. Relatively nearby supernovae are louder; more distant supernovae are quieter. And the way the supernova brightens and fades over time determines its pitch. The video shows a time-lapse animation, based on real telescope data, during which two weeks of actual time pass by each second.

Supernova Sonata from Alex Parker on Vimeo.

Type Ia supernovae are of special astronomical interest because they can be used as cosmic distance markers. In the 1990s, two teams used those supernovae to show that the universe is accelerating in its expansion thanks to an unknown entity now called dark energy. The supernovae depicted in the video above (the brightnesses of which are not to scale) were detected between 2003 and 2006 by the Supernova Legacy Survey at the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope, a project that aims to better constrain dark energy by collecting a large sample of type Ia supernovae at varying distances.

Image of Tycho’s supernova remnant: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al.; Optical: DSS





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  1. 1. kinley 2:52 am 05/27/2011

    nice one. This kind of thing has an objective truth about it (regardless of cosmic speculations), bound and shaped as it is by true relationships of appearances, no matter how they’re mediated -dials and digits etc- or what they signify. Useful I believe. By the way, astrology operates similarly on indisputable topocentric angles of sight. (leaving aside what they signify!)

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  2. 2. Evolver 2:58 pm 05/27/2011

    I didn’t know Dwight Schrute read SciAm.

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  3. 3. quizzical 4:26 pm 05/27/2011

    JJJ seems to understand what the author seems to miss.
    It seems that artists will come up with the most improbable and useless things.
    I too, wish that SciAm would stick to real repeatable science rather than being a platform for nonsense.
    Of course, some folks seem to be bored with truth and think they need forays into the ridiculous.

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  4. 4. LFAckerson 4:50 pm 05/27/2011

    I personally liked the article. Perhaps it isn’t as "hard science" oriented as some of the comments indicate, but SciAm isn’t a hard science journal. It’s a blend of hard science written in a way that is understood by many, not just the few. Science should be accessible for everyone, it’s how children become interested and pursue careers in science in the first place.

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  5. 5. quizzical 10:04 pm 05/27/2011

    But this article is not about science at all. Just because the subject is supernovae doesn’t make it science. Science is about facts not suppositions and not art. A discussion about how some folks see images of animals, birds or other things in cumulus clouds, is not a discussion about science. You may LIKE the article, and that is fine, but calling it science is a stretch that SciAm would do well to minimize. This article presents several notions that are patently false. How is that supposed to enhance science education? It is actually very confusing. Even the brightnesses are admitted to be "not to scale."

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  6. 6. Wilhelmus de Wilde 5:03 am 06/2/2011

    Hi Quizzical,
    you say : science is about facts not SUPPOSITIONS and nt art.
    Science is a whole lot of suppositions that are born sometimes after facts, in this way it is art itself.
    wilhelmus

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 4:32 pm 06/7/2011

    It would appear that God is a crappy composer. I’m also rather suspicious of His choice of destroying stellar systems as an instrument.

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  8. 8. Wayne Williamson 3:24 pm 06/11/2011

    Very much enjoyed….gives a feel for how often these event occur…thanks….

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