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June 04, 2013

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Now downloadable: “music” of the stars

Aug. 13, 2006
Courtesy Sheffield Hallam University 
and World Science staff

Ancient Greeks thought planets and stars were embedded in vast crystal spheres that hummed as they spun around the heavens, giving off what the ancients called “the music of the spheres.”

Downloadable star sounds

»
HR3831, discovered by Kurtz, a new class of star with a powerful magnetic field. It pulses every 11.7 minutes.  

»
Xi-hydrae, an old star in the constellation Hydra. It is 130 light years away and 60 times brighter than the Sun. Its sounds, which have been featured in club music in Belgium, are reminiscent of African drumming.

» A
"white dwarf" or dead star 50 light years away, also in Centaurus

» The
first piece of music composed for stellar instruments: the slowly-building Stellar Music No. 1 by Jenõ Keuler and Zoltán Kolláth. 

It was a beautiful idea, and wrong.

But not totally wrong. There are no crystal spheres; but as astronomers found out in the 1970s, “the sun and other stars do actually ‘sing,’” said astronomer Donald Kurtz of The University of Central Lancashire in Preston, U.K. 

The eerie tones are now downloadable (see sidebar.)

Stars—themselves spherical—can produce notes through their vibrations, like musical instruments.

We can’t hear the sounds directly, but “astronomers can detect them through asteroseismology—looking beneath the surfaces of the stars into their cores,” Kurtz said. 

“We can see inside the Sun as clearly as you can see a fetus in the womb using ultrasound.”

Experts worldwide discussed asteroseismology at a conference early this month at the University of Sheffield, U.K. 

Stars produce ghostly whistling, drumming, humming or rumbling sounds, said Kurtz, though their frequencies—or speeds of vibration—must be artificially boosted to bring them into human hearing range.

At a lecture at the conference, Kurtz demonstrated how Bach would sound if played by the stars, combining pitches from different stars into a computer-projected melody. He also used helium, cymbals and bottles to recreate stellar sounds.

“Stars have natural vibrations that are sound waves, just as musical instruments do,” Kurtz explained.

“In the case of an instrument such as a horn, the cause of the vibrations is the musician blowing on the horn and buzzing his or her lips at a frequency that matches the natural vibrations of the horn. For the star, the vibrations start by changes in the passage of energy from the nuclear inferno in the heart of the star on its way to the surface, and escape into space.”

Early last year, researchers published a paper noting that a massive quake had left a so-called neutron star vibrating like a bell, sounding a note corresponding to what humans designate as F sharp. Early this year, scientists reported that not only stars vibrate musically—the whole Milky Way is oscillating as well, like a drumhead.

“Understanding the sounds of the stars is important for our understanding of the formation of the solar system and the Earth,” Kurtz said. Using asteroseismology “We can even monitor dangerous ‘active’ regions on the far side of the Sun.” These stormy zones can later send out blasts that create geomagnetic storms on Earth, leading to power failures and radio disruption.

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