What Does the Sun Sound Like?

Smooth jazz, mostly. (Kidding! It sounds like hums and zooms and tribal drums!)

Smooth jazz, mostly. (Kidding! It sounds like hums and zooms and tribal drums!)

Robert Alexander is a data sonification specialist, which means that his job is, essentially, to convert data into sounds. Alexander takes collections of flat, static numbers -- stock price variations, wind speeds, human pulse rates -- and transforms them into music. "I think of myself as an explorer," Alexander says in the video above. "I live in the space between art and science and technology." And in the space -- vast and narrow at the same time -- between data and beauty.

And you know something that offers a ton of both data and beauty? Our nearest star. Alexander has been putting his sonification skills to use to create, basically, a soundtrack for the sun.

To do that, he relied on data gathered by the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint NASA-ESA spacecraft that astronomers use to study the sun. The vehicle, among other things, helps to predict the solar flares -- gaseous eruptions from the solar surface, otherwise known as "coronal mass ejections" -- that can disrupt electrical grids and communications infrastructures here on Earth. Alexander manipulated those data to create songs that are both transcendent and utterly rooted in the physical world. As Motherboard's Michael Byrne puts it, "He's rendered solar flares as a human choir, and turned the sun's rotation into a a tribal beat."

But solar sonification -- "interacting with the sun," Alexander calls it -- isn't just about making artistic things out of science-y things. It's also about taking that data-driven art and using its patterns and rhythms and nuances and flows to learn something new. At one point, Alexander -- a fellow at NASA -- noticed a unique hum in the solar sonification he'd created. Which in turn made him realize that sound can help humans detect carbon levels, which are in turn useful for measuring the actual temperatures of solar flares. That insight resulted in a paper that was published last year in the Astrophysical Journal. We've always known that music has something to teach us; that truism could be even more true, however, when your inspiration -- and your instrument -- is the sun.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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