Scientist to Launch Interstellar Space Music

Author:
ANGLIA RUSKIN UNIVERSITY

Date
03/13/2023

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Data sonification expert has US premiere for music based on NASA readings

Dr Alyssa Schwartz, Visiting Assistant Professor of Flute and Musicology at Fairmont State University

­A scientist from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) will premiere a new piece of music at the SXSW EDU festival that has been created using data beamed back to Earth from interstellar space.

On Thursday, 9 March, Dr Domenico Vicinanza will be joined on stage in Austin, Texas, by Dr Alyssa Schwartz, Visiting Assistant Professor of Flute and Musicology at Fairmont State University, to perform music shaped by scientific readings collected by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Dr Vicinanza, a Senior Lecturer in ARU’s School of Computing and Information Science, is a leading expert in data sonification, which is a process of converting scientific measurements into sound. As well as producing music, data sonification has a range of practical uses including medical diagnostics and big data mining.

In addition to his collaborations with NASA, Dr Vicinanza has also used data sonification to produce music for the BBC, Yellowstone National Park, and CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider. 

His SXSW EDU event will include a world premiere of a piece for solo flute that has been created using data from the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which has a suite of antennas and instruments to record plasma waves, which are caused by particles vibrating in space, and then send the readings back to Earth.

Voyager 1 is the first manmade object to leave our solar system, and so this is the first time that interstellar plasma waves have been recorded.  Dr Vicinanza’s piece has turned this plasma data into music to chart Voyager 1’s journey from inside the solar system, across the heliopause, which is the transition region between inside and outside the Sun’s area of influence, and into interstellar space.

Dr Vicinanza, who in addition to his role at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) is also the coordinator for arts and humanities for the European network GÉANT, said: “We know that our ears are better than our eyes at detecting the most subtle changes, and that’s why listening to complex data to identify patterns and abnormalities is more effective than looking at graphs or lines of numbers.

“Data sonification has so many practical possibilities, but it is also a wonderful tool for bringing scientific data to life through music. Peaks and troughs can be translated into musical notes, and trends in the data can be turned into melodies.

“The piece we will be performing at SXSW EDU has three sections. It begins with a smooth melody line, played ‘legato’, using the low, darker register of the flute, describing the data at the border of the solar system, still inside the heliosphere.

“There is then a short transition phase, from the low to the high register of the flute, played staccato. And finally, there is a melody in the high register, that incorporates higher intervals, modulations, atonality, and played with a mix of techniques, describing the interstellar space.

“I’m honoured to be premiering this new piece of music in person at the SXSW EDU Conference and Festival, particularly as it has been produced using the same data sonification techniques that we have developed here at ARU, and that we use with our students on the MSc Data Science course.”

EurekAlert!, the online, global news service operated by AAAS, the science society. 

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