University researchers have turned three years of supernova explosions captured by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope into haunting, beautiful music.
From April 2003 until August 2006 the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope stared out at the sky, watching for Type 1a supernovas, which are created by the thermonuclear detonation of one or more white dwarf stars. “These explosions are extremely energetic,” explained astronomer Alex Parker of the University of Victoria, “and can be seen across vast distances in space.”
Even though the telescope was only able to monitor about 1/10,000th of the entire sky, 241 Type 1a supernovas were detected and recorded. Parker, along with University of California Santa Barbara astronomer Melissa L. Graham, compiled the interstellar explosions into a video, with one second of footage representing roughly two weeks of real-time observation, and set it all to music.
But not just any music. Each supernova was assigned a musical note based on the following criteria:
- Volume = Distance: The volume of the note is determined by the distance to the supernova, with more distant supernova being quieter and fainter.
- Pitch = “Stretch:” The pitch of the note was determined by the supernova’s “stretch,” a property of how the supernova brightens and fades. Higher stretch values played higher notes. The pitches were drawn from a Phrygian dominant scale.
- Instrument = Mass of Host Galaxy: The instrument the note was played on was determined by the properties of the galaxy which hosted each supernova. Supernovae hosted by massive galaxies are played with a stand-up bass, while supernovae hosted by less massive galaxies are played with a grand piano.
The resulting “Supernova Sonata” is a short but strangely beautiful and contemplative song, played out against a night sky that most of us will never get to see. “Note that the brightness of the supernovae as shown in the animation are not to scale,” Parker explained. “Because they are so distant, even these extremely powerful explosions appear very faint upon reaching us here on Earth.” Not the most practical application of the science of astronomy, perhaps, but definitely one of the most sublime.