Your kindergarten teacher warned you not to look directly at the sun, but not to worry: now you can listen to it sing, instead. Scientists have long tracked the intensity and patterns of the sun’s “wind” through the solar system and around planets (solar wind is essentially a stream of very enthusiastic particles emitted by the sun), but they’ve done so with boring graphs and charts. Now, researchers at the University of Michigan have turned that data into sound, trading their dry charts in for an ethereal, pulse-quickening song, or “sonification” of data. And in this case, hearing is believing: the song-stream will indicate changes like rising temperatures or density increases. The composer, Robert Alexander, might use a drum beat to represent the rotation of the sun, for example, or a singer’s voice to represent charging particles.
All very cool and sci-fi, but what’s the point? No one seems to know yet quite what purpose, if any, this new musical manifestation of solar data will serve. The hope is that the ears will pick up something the eyes hadn’t - and that maybe that new perspective will, for example, help scientists mitigate solar storms.
For now though, the guy who came up with the idea – Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate dean in engineering and an atmospheric science professor – is just happy to see the scientific community reaching across disciplines into the unknown. And wouldn’t Einstein agree that reaching into the unknown – for the unreasonable or implausible – is an important component of discovery? As the Big Man once said: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”
And Jim Raines of the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences is curious to see where the research will take our understanding of the sun, though it hasn’t led to any ground-breaking discoveries just yet. "I am excited for sonification's potential in research, but I think more work will need to be done to realize that potential," said Raines.
One question the project raises on the green front is whether or not this new musical illustration of the sun’s fluctuations and power will be of any help in the quest to harness those fluctuations and power for energy. Hard to imagine people sitting at home or in offices, listening to the sun sing, waiting for the change in pitch that means it’s time to head out to the yard to shift the solar panels 15 degrees to the east. But then, who knows?
Hear it for yourself, with this YouTube video of the sonification, posted by Zurbuchen.