Using the Sun to Make Music

asked me five years ago, Robert, where will you be
five years from now? I don’t think I would’ve been
able to come up with an answer as cool as what I actually feel
like I’m doing, you know? [ETHEREAL MUSIC] ROBERT ALEXANDER: My name
is Robert Alexander. And I’m a data sonification
specialist with the Solar and Heliospheric Research Group. To sonify something just means
that you’re taking any type of data and just turning
it into sound. So it could be a measurement
of the stock market. It could be a measurement
of people entering and exiting a room. It could be your heartbeat. So if you think about a
heart rate monitor– beep, beep– essentially, this is
a sonification of someone’s pulse. I think of myself
as an explorer. I live in the space between
art, and science, and technology. And the Toroidal Universe
project is a great example. I collaborated with this amazing
visual artist by the name of Danielle Battaglia. And we created this
multi-sensory experience in which people, they can just get
lost in these theoretical higher dimensional spaces. And these were filled with these
sounds that I generated from raw satellite data that
were these kind of guide posts as you move around. It really is important for me to
remain grounded in what it means to just be connected with
the world of sound in a very tangible, very
visceral way. So then when I go off and I’m
interacting with the sun, it gives me a sense of grounding
in a sense. And it kind of helps just
round out my life and to maintain a healthy sort
of balance, I guess you could say. So as I was finishing up my
master’s degree, I was approached by Thomas Zurbuchen
who leads the Solar and Heliospheric Research Group. And he was interested in taking
some other data and turning it into sound. So I met with their team. And they put up a
bunch of plots. And they were telling me about
coronal holes, and they were throwing out this scientific
jargon. And I really didn’t understand
much of it. But then they put up these
images and these movies. And then I really started
to understand why they were so excited. It’s because what’s happening
out there is absolutely amazing, and it was
all silent. So essentially they’re
interested in kind of creating a soundtrack for these things
that are taking place out in space. SUSAN LEPRI: He brought to us
this idea of sonifying data, which is really quite innovative
and maybe even transformative. ROBERT ALEXANDER: I had
no idea what data audification was. But that’s what I was doing at
the time is I was taking this solar data, and I was writing it
directly into audio files. So I hit play. And I hear this underlying
hum. And there seemed to
be a structure. The hum would rise and fall. So then after I crunched all the
numbers, I realized that what I was listening to
was something that was periodically happening every
roughly 27 days. And that’s exactly the
rotational period of the sun. And then, from there it was this
journey of realizing that I’m listening to the solar
cycle, so the rise and the fall in solar activity. And then, at that point, I
realized this can really actually teach us
something new. At first, it came off as
extremely cerebral. And it was just a tone that
kind of went up and down. And there really wasn’t very
much emotion behind it. And we really didn’t know how
we wanted to start to investigate these sounds. So then as it evolved, they
said, well, how about we try an emotional journey? So a week later, I came back,
and I had created this iteration whereby you take a
journey from the Earth out to the sun and back, with
sonification audio underlying this whole entire experience. Every single piece of that music
is driven in some way, shape, or form by that data. And all of the choices in terms
of the rise and the fall, all of them relate back
to the underlying data. And all of them are true
to the data in some way, shape, or form. Starting with one of the more
predominant things that you’re actually hearing is
that drumbeat. There’s a question of are there
African tribal drummers on the surface of the sun? And the answer is no. But if you think about a
scientific graph, there are hash marks. And you need these hash
marks to make sense. What the drum beat is is it’s a
sort of grandiose metronome, in a sense. And it just lets you
know where you are within this data set. So for that piece with the
drumming that’s all over the year 2003, and the drumming
actually lets you, like every eight bars, that you’ve
gone through one full rotation of the sun. And in a sense, if you hear
something that happens at the beginning of the bar and then
you hear something happen again, similarly, at the
beginning eight bars later, then you know that this might be
a feature that’s persisted across an entire solar rotation
now, and it’s coming back in the musical form. And the sun then provides the
structure and can provide these sort of recurring
themes. And the drums just give
it that structure within which to evolve. I recorded the voice of my
sister, Amanda Alexander. And she has a great
alto voice. And originally I was thinking
about these charge states of carbon, and the fact that as one
of them goes up, another one comes down. And so when you have a lower
voice versus a higher voice, there’s actually more
energy pushing out those higher notes. So when I’m representing a
higher energetic state, I’m using a more energized voice. And in this way, it’s kind of
appealing directly to the intuition of the listener in
that when you hear these voices get more energized,
you’re at a higher energy level coming from the
sun, essentially. I create a structure. I create a framework. And without the data driving
that framework, nothing takes place. So the structure just kind
of exists on its own. And then it’s the data that
creates all the motion, that creates all the interaction,
and all the progression of the music. SUSAN LEPRI: Initially, it
started out sort of more looking at the aesthetics of how
can you sonify solar wind? And it was a musical
sort of approach. But then it evolved more
into a scientific data analysis method. When he was working with the
scientists here, Enrico Landi, who is, I believe, the first
author on the paper, he found that he could actually hear
some of the trends more clearly in some of
the elements. ROBERT ALEXANDER: I was digging
through like 20, 30 different data parameters and
listening to them all. And I realized that if I
listened to carbon that I could hear a very strong,
harmonic presence. And I started to think, if I’m
hearing carbon here, but no one in the group has
ever really been talking about carbon. It’s not really something
that they stress as being important. And yet, here, fundamentally,
this is one of the strongest periodic signals that I had
found up to that point. I’m thinking maybe this is
something worth looking into a little bit more. We were able to figure out that,
if we use carbon, that we can trace the origins
of the solar wind with a higher accuracy. So we can figure out where it’s
originating on the sun. SUSAN LEPRI: This was fairly
significant research findings that came out of this
audification thing. So it really, I think, set the
stage for Robert to do a lot more exciting things with the
sonification of data. ROBERT ALEXANDER: We wrote
everything up. And we said that the ear can be
an extremely powerful tool in the analysis of this type of
data, of time series data. And some people at NASA, I
guess, got excited about that. And they said, all right,
let’s give it a shot. And so now I’m in the second
year of my NASA JPFP fellowship. And I spent the last summer
working at NASA Goddard. And I was really amazed at how
eager they all were to pick up the ball with sonification. And so it was really
invigorating to be in that kind of space with those kinds
of minds and to be tackling these kinds of ideas. We forget that the most powerful
tool that we have for exploring the universe is right
between our two ears. And those same two ears
provide a wealth of information beyond what our
eyes can actually see. When we open up our ears and
open up our minds, we open ourselves up to an entirely
new way of understanding the universe.

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