What Does Space Sound Like?

What Does Space Sound Like?

9:43am Jun 05, 2015
Artist Honor Harger says Jupiter sounds like "ocean waves breaking up on the beach."
Artist Honor Harger says Jupiter sounds like "ocean waves breaking up on the beach."
Robert Leslie / Courtesy of TED

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Act Of Listening

About Honor Harger's TED Talk

Sound artist Honor Harger spent the last few years listening to the stars and recording some of the sounds of space.

About Honor Harger

Honor Harger is a New Zealand-born artist who has a particular interest in artistic uses of technologies. Her artistic practice is produced under the name r a d i o q u a l i a, together with collaborator Adam Hyde. One of their main projects was Radio Astronomy , a radio station broadcasting sounds from space. She is currently executive director of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore.

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Dave Isay's TED Talk and his plan to do that coming up. But right now, a kind of listening that is a little less terrestrial.


RAZ: So are you hearing this?


RAZ: So what is this?

HARGER: This is the sound of cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang 13.78 billion years ago.

RAZ: Wow, we're hearing the Big Bang right now?

HARGER: You're hearing what's left of the Big Bang.


HARGER: That's the closest that we can come to experiencing the beginning of the universe.

RAZ: This is Honor Harger. She's a sound artist. And a few years ago, Honor started to listen to space because while most of us could tell you what space looks like, not a lot of people could tell you what it sounds like. Here's how Honor explained it from the TED stage.


HARGER: Now, this story doesn't start with vast telescopes or futuristic spacecraft, but a rather more humble technology and, in fact, the very medium which gave us the telecommunications revolution that we're all part of today - the telephone. It's 1876. It's in Boston, and this is Alexander Graham Bell who is working with Thomas Watson on the invention of the telephone. A key part of their technical set up was a half-mile long length of wire which was thrown across the rooftops of several houses in Boston. The line carried the telephone signals that would later make Bell a household name. But like any long length of charged wire, it also inadvertently became an antenna. Thomas Watson spent hours listening to the strange crackles and hisses and chirps and whistles that his accidental antenna detected. So what were these strange noises? As he correctly guessed, some of these sounds were caused by activity on the surface of the sun. So whilst inventing the technology that would usher in the telecommunications revolution, Watson had discovered that the star at the center of our solar system emitted powerful radio waves. He had accidentally been the first person to tune into them.

RAZ: You know, it's crazy because we think about space as a silent place. Like, we don't think of space as having anything to hear.

HARGER: Well, in a sense, that's accurate because the medium of space itself is a vacuum. And, you know, obviously sound can't travel in a vacuum, but it's the fact that radio waves can travel through the vacuum of space and then be detected using the same types of radio receivers and antennas that our listeners are using to detect our voices.


HARGER: That's where the magic is really happening here because, you know, scaling up those antennas and changing the frequency of those receivers makes it possible for us to detect not just radio waves made by us here on Earth, but celestial radio waves made by the sun or Jupiter or a pulsar or any other astrophysical phenomenon.

RAZ: So - but what if you're just, like, out there in space, right? Like, what does that empty sound - like, that empty space - sound like?

HARGER: Well, the sound of space itself sounds a bit like an undifferentiated hissing noise.

RAZ: Just like a (imitating hissing sound).

HARGER: Pretty much.

RAZ: Yeah.

HARGER: Yeah (laughter) and it's not until you're actually, you know, listening to a particular object. So different objects sound like different things. Jupiter sounds like ocean waves breaking up on a beach if it's long waves of radiation.


HARGER: Pebbles being thrown onto a tin roof if it's short waves of radiation.


HARGER: The sun sounds a little bit like the sea, kind of roaring.


HARGER: A pulsar, for instance, which is a pulsating radio star, sounds like a drumbeat; the faster the pulsar is spinning, the faster the beat.


HARGER: You become quite attuned to being able to detect what it is that you're listening to just by the sounds.


HARGER: It's through listening that we've come to uncover some of the universe's most important secrets; its scale, what it's made of and even how old it is. This is what the sun sounds like.


HARGER: This is the planet Jupiter.


HARGER: And this is a highly condensed clump of neutral matter spinning in the distant universe.


RAZ: When you hear those sounds, what are they telling us about space?

HARGER: So one of the practices of turning a non-audible phenomena into sound is trying to work out if there's something that we can hear in the data that we can't see. And sometimes ears can be incredibly effective detectors of patterns in a way that perhaps our eyes - because we use them so much more - are not as effective at. So I suppose that's the scientific answer, and then the human or artistic answer is that there's something quite emotionally fulfilling about being able to connect with something as distant and therefore quite abstract as a star through the emotional mechanism of listening. These vastly, you know, kind of large astrophysical structures become a little bit more tangible to us, I think, if we can approach them through listening as opposed to just looking.

RAZ: Honor Harger is a sound artist and now the executive director of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. In a moment - listening with your whole body. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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