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A major breakthrough in physics is heard,

not seen
0

When you imagine inquiring in the universe, your first idea is probably someone looking
at something an image.
But there are other ways of sensing and studying the world, too. Last weeks detection of
gravitational waves, confirming the presence of what had been predicted by Einstein, is
special in that it heralds a new significance to sound in physics.

Now, were biased as musicians, of course. But that makes it doubly inspiring when you
hear the scientists talk this way.
Finally, astronomy grew ears, says team member Szabolcs Marka in The New York
Times. We never had ears before, he says.
Heres a video by the legendary Brian Greene, explaining more:
In antiquity, the division between music and cosmos was blurred sound, mathematics,
and philosophy not yet having evolved into todays specializations. So this notion of a
music of the spheres, a resonance between the universe and musical output, was a
natural one.
But we dont think quite like the Ancients. So lets consider what we mean by sound.
First, even in this enlightened scientific age, were all most of the day limited by our
senses. So we think of light as what we can see, and sound as what we can hear.
In the case of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the
gravitational wave detectors are really nothing like our ears, let alone a typical sound
transducer. They have mirrors and lasers inside, so your first impression might be of

something resembling a (really weird) telescope or optical device rather than something
to do with sound.
There are antenna arms running 4 km (2.5 mi) long, each containing a long vacuum
chamber. Suspended mirrors calibrated with lasers are able to register impossibly minute
vibrations on a subatomic scale (smaller than a proton).
So why do we describe these as sound at all? Well, we are talking vibrations. If the
LIGO detectors are built to detect the cosmic equivalent of ripples on a pond, were
talking very big events (the collision of two black holes) very long ago (a billion years)
making a tiny but now measurable impact here on Earth.
But once we get to that level, the principle actually is the same as what happens in your
inner ear. Vibrations in the outside world even these very low frequency, very brief
ones are what we think of as sound. And detecting variation in those vibrations is how
we now a sound has happened (thats the if a tree fell in a forest and someone is
actually there to hear it idea).
Now, Im not a physicist. (Seriously ask my high school physics teacher.) But what we
can offer as people in music and sound is a chance to start to talk again with our
scientific counterparts. Because from the point LIGO turns its detections into sound,
youll find yourself in surprisingly familiar territory.
The New York Times had an especially poetic video and article on the announcement:
Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einsteins Theory [Science Thursday]
And they also posted the chirp associated with the announcement:
LIGOChirp.mp3
There are images associated with major discoveries in space exploration and science, but
sometimes, you get sounds, too.
As Dennis Overbye writes for The New York Times, If replicated by future experiments,
that simple chirp, which rose to the note of middle C before abruptly stopping, seems
destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science, ranking with Alexander
Graham Bells Mr. Watson come here and Sputniks first beeps from orbit.
It didnt take long for people to become intrigued by messing around with these sounds.
And why not? Pictures of the universe routinely tickle our imaginations and inspire art,
so why not sounds of the universe, too?
For instance, heres an early example of a stretched-out rendition of the chirp from
LIGO. Its actually a bit easier to hear this way:

Sonifications arent necessarily used by scientists in this sort of work, but they can be
sometimes, its just as easy or easier to hear a signal as to see it. (And its also possible
to do both.)
Theres reason to expect more of this sort of sonic activity, too. Now that LIGO has been
proven, you can expect more experiments in this range. And the sources are likely to be
juicy ones cosmologist Michael Turner notes in that NYT story that the loudest things
in the gravity-wave sky are the most exotic things in the universe: black holes, neutron
stars and the early universe.
And there are more detectors coming to do just that job including a forthcoming
orbiting gravitational wave observatory. Just as having more senses as humans allows us
to be more aware, combining senses and instruments can help verify results. As PBS
reports, other groups are trying to spot a transitory light source that coincides with the
gravitational wave signal. They want to see what LIGO hears.
Kate Becker, writing for PBS program NOVA, explains how the process works:
How LIGO Detected Gravitational Waves [NOVA NEXT]
And while we have had sonifications of electro-magnetic signatures of our sky, its a
new thing to actually be listening to vibrations directly as a principle means of
investigation (hence the growing ears references).
Calla Cofield in a story for The Christian Science Monitor explains that significance.
Now, interestingly, that author stumbles over the metaphors a bit, explaining sound as a
new way to see even as the scientists interviewed very carefully use hearing as the
way of putting this in perspective:
No longer blind: Why that gravitational wave discovery is so heavy [Christian Science
Monitor / SPACE.com]
So get ready to listen to the music of the cosmos across billions of years.
And whats next is there more that can be done with the sonification of this
experiment? Remixes? Other ways of listening to the universe? Discuss.