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Music of the Spheres
Episode 9111th August 2021 • Audio Branding • Jodi Krangle
00:00:00 00:05:28

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“In space, no one can hear you scream.” At least not according to a certain famous movie tagline, and for the most part, it’s absolutely right. Sound as we know it travels as vibrating waves through matter, and there just isn’t enough of it in the vacuum of space to carry sound. But that doesn’t mean space is really silent. Ancient scholars believed in the “Musica Universalis” or the “music of the spheres,” a universal harmony created by the movements of the planets and stars that, though inaudible to the human ear, filled the cosmos. And they turned out to be right in ways that even they couldn’t have conceived.

Most of us know what the Sun looks like, but what does the Sun sound like? Modern astronomers before 1962 would have said it doesn’t sound like anything, but then they discovered that the Sun oscillates every five minutes as sound waves ripple across its surface. A new branch of science, helioseismology, was formed that uses those sound waves to map the inside of the Sun, the same way we can study the Earth by measuring earthquakes.

It turns out that the Sun itself has a resonant frequency, just like a drum or a violin string. At 0.0033 hertz it’s too low to hear, but just check my blog for an audible clip of the Sun created by Stanford University’s Sounds of Solar Harmonics Project:

Each and every star in the sky has its own unique harmonics, its own voice, and we’re just starting to study those stellar sounds. The European Space Agency’s PLATO space telescope is scheduled to launch in 2026 and one of its missions will be to study the oscillations of nearby stars, to literally listen to the sounds they create.

Stars aren’t the only things in the sky that have a resonance frequency and a sound all their own. Even the planets possess their own unique sounds, created by magnetic fields and transmitted throughout the solar system as radio waves. Saturn in particular has a complex sound that includes its own magnetic field as well as the sound of its rings and moons swinging around it. You can find an audio clip of Saturn created by NASA on my blog; you might find it unsettling or even soothing, but it’s definitely unearthly.

This sort of celestial harmony stretches far beyond our solar system to include the whole universe. Just a few months ago astronomers discovered that a nearby star system, TOI-178, has five planets locked in resonant orbits around their star. All five planets orbit their star with a single harmony, like a music box dancer. You can find a link to an audio representation of TOI-178 on my blog. While our Sun and planets can have very uncanny, whispering and howling sounds, TOI-178’s orbits almost sound like a song:

If planets and stars and even star systems can resonate with their own unique sound, what about the universe itself? The answer is surprisingly yes, and it was predicted by Albert Einstein. Gravity, according to relativity theory, literally creates waves in the fabric of space and time, and those gravitational waves were first detected in 2015. Although every moving object creates gravitational waves, the strongest ones, the ones we’ve detected, come from black holes as they collide and merge together; those collisions send vibrations racing across the universe at the speed of light.

The universe itself is vibrating like a drum as gravitational waves ripple back and forth across it, with a vast and complicated rhythm that we can’t even begin to comprehend. Trillions of years from now, even after the stars have faded, those gravitational waves, the sound of the universe itself, will still fill the cosmos, and it’ll continue until literally the end of time.

There’s another link on my blog to a video called “Timelapse of the Future: A Journey to the End of Time.” At 30 minutes it’s a little long, but absolutely worth watching as it explores the future of the Earth, our galaxy and finally the universe, and how sound and harmony, in the form of gravitational waves sweeping through space, may well be the final, most enduring aspect of the cosmos.

The next time you look up at the night sky, think of the stars and planets, and even the empty space between them, all filled with vibrations and secret melodies that we’re only beginning to discover. Music is a part of the universe itself, filling every distant corner and reaching further into the future than we can imagine.

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