A Gamma-Ray Burst as Music

by Nancy Atkinson on June 21, 2012

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This is awesome.

What would a gamma-ray burst sound like? No one really knows, but members of the team that work with the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) have translated gamma-ray measurements into musical notes and have created a “song” from the photons from one of the most energetic of these powerful explosions, GRB 080916C which occurred in September of 2008.

“In translating the gamma-ray measurements into musical notes we assigned the photons to be “played” by different instruments (harp, cello, or piano) based on the probabilities that they came from the burst,” the team wrote in the Fermi blog. “By converting gamma rays into musical notes, we have a new way of representing the data and listening to the universe.”

In the beginning of the song, before the burst starts, the harp plucks out a few lonely notes. After about half a minute, the piano joins in on top of the harp background, and the notes begin to pile on more and more rapidly. The cello enters the scene as the burst begins in earnest, creating a full, energetic sound.

The Fermi team created an accompanying animation to help see what is happening:

The top panel shows each individual gamma-ray. The colors refer to low (red), medium (blue) and high (green) quality gamma-rays (played by harp, cello and piano respectively). The energy of the gamma-ray is on the y-axis (higher energy gamma-rays are towards the top of the plot) and the arrival time of the gamma-rays are on the x-axis (later arriving gamma-rays are further to the right). The vertical white line tells you where the music is currently playing. The bottom panel shows the number of gamma-rays (which is the number of notes played) in each time slice.

Beautiful.

Source: NASA Blogs/GLAST

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Aqua4U June 21, 2012 at 11:33 PM

Intriguing and beautiful! Music from the stars… The Neutron Star Sonata?

Aqua4U June 21, 2012 at 11:36 PM

I’ll see if I can play it on my fiddle….

Andrew Meronek June 22, 2012 at 12:53 AM

That turned out to be rather pretty.
However, I get bugged by questions like “What would a gamma-ray burst sound like?” Gamma rays don’t sound like anything. Dramatic context conversions like that provided here are just that – dramatic. There is way too much interpretation to reveal anything new about what the gammay-ray blast was doing. For starters, I highly doubt that the gamma-ray blast had anything to do with the minor harmonic series, or to do with 12-note equal temperament.

Stan Taylor June 22, 2012 at 12:57 PM

True, this has been constrained to play notes conforming to Western equal tempered scales, which sounds a bit boring to my ears. The translation could be done to more accurately reflect the natural frequency relationships, or pentatonic scales, or Javanese gamelan bells, or…

Dick Fineman June 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM

the score following the chart reminds me of Iannis Xenakis

Jeffrey Scott Boerst June 22, 2012 at 5:12 PM

Xenakis meets Eno, Music For Airports era… ;)

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