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TEDSalon London Spring 2011

Honor Harger: A history of the universe in sound

Filmed
Views 919,512

Artist-technologist Honor Harger listens to the weird and wonderful noises of stars and planets and pulsars. In her work, she tracks the radio waves emitted by ancient celestial objects and turns them into sound, including "the oldest song you will ever hear," the sound of cosmic rays left over from the Big Bang.

- Artist
Honor Harger explores the sounds of the sky, using art to connect her audience to the universe. Full bio

Space,
00:21
we all know what it looks like.
00:23
We've been surrounded by images of space
00:25
our whole lives,
00:27
from the speculative images
00:29
of science fiction
00:31
to the inspirational visions of artists
00:33
to the increasingly beautiful pictures
00:36
made possible by complex technologies.
00:39
But whilst we have
00:42
an overwhelmingly vivid
00:44
visual understanding of space,
00:46
we have no sense of what space sounds like.
00:48
And indeed, most people associate space with silence.
00:51
But the story of how
00:55
we came to understand the universe
00:57
is just as much a story of listening
00:59
as it is by looking.
01:01
And yet despite this,
01:04
hardly any of us have ever heard space.
01:06
How many of you here
01:09
could describe the sound
01:11
of a single planet or star?
01:13
Well in case you've ever wondered,
01:15
this is what the Sun sounds like.
01:17
(Static)
01:19
(Crackling)
01:33
(Static)
01:37
(Crackling)
01:43
This is the planet Jupiter.
01:47
(Soft crackling)
01:50
And this is the space probe Cassini
02:10
pirouetting through the ice rings of Saturn.
02:13
(Crackling)
02:17
This is a a highly condensed clump
02:37
of neutral matter,
02:40
spinning in the distant universe.
02:42
(Tapping)
02:46
So my artistic practice
03:04
is all about listening
03:06
to the weird and wonderful noises
03:08
emitted by the magnificent celestial objects
03:11
that make up our universe.
03:14
And you may wonder,
03:17
how do we know what these sounds are?
03:19
How can we tell the difference
03:21
between the sound of the Sun
03:23
and the sound of a pulsar?
03:25
Well the answer
03:27
is the science of radio astronomy.
03:29
Radio astronomers
03:31
study radio waves from space
03:33
using sensitive antennas and receivers,
03:35
which give them precise information
03:38
about what an astronomical object is
03:40
and where it is in our night sky.
03:43
And just like the signals
03:45
that we send and receive here on Earth,
03:47
we can convert these transmissions into sound
03:50
using simple analog techniques.
03:53
And therefore, it's through listening
03:56
that we've come to uncover
03:59
some of the universe's most important secrets --
04:01
its scale, what it's made of
04:04
and even how old it is.
04:07
So today, I'm going to tell you a short story
04:09
of the history of the universe through listening.
04:12
It's punctuated
04:15
by three quick anecdotes,
04:17
which show how accidental encounters
04:19
with strange noises
04:21
gave us some of the most important information
04:23
we have about space.
04:26
Now this story doesn't start
04:28
with vast telescopes
04:30
or futuristic spacecraft,
04:32
but a rather more humble technology --
04:35
and in fact, the very medium
04:38
which gave us the telecommunications revolution
04:40
that we're all part of today:
04:43
the telephone.
04:45
It's 1876, it's in Boston,
04:47
and this is Alexander Graham Bell
04:50
who was working with Thomas Watson
04:52
on the invention of the telephone.
04:54
A key part of their technical set up
04:57
was a half-mile long length of wire,
05:00
which was thrown across the rooftops
05:02
of several houses in Boston.
05:04
The line carried the telephone signals
05:07
that would later make Bell a household name.
05:10
But like any long length of charged wire,
05:13
it also inadvertently became
05:16
an antenna.
05:18
Thomas Watson
05:20
spent hours listening
05:22
to the strange crackles and hisses
05:24
and chirps and whistles
05:26
that his accidental antenna detected.
05:29
Now you have to remember,
05:32
this is 10 years before
05:34
Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of radio waves --
05:36
15 years before Nikola Tesla's four-tuned circuit --
05:40
nearly 20 years before Marconi's first broadcast.
05:43
So Thomas Watson wasn't listening to us.
05:47
We didn't have the technology
05:50
to transmit.
05:52
So what were these strange noises?
05:54
Watson was in fact listening
05:58
to very low-frequency radio emissions
06:00
caused by nature.
06:02
Some of the crackles and pops were lightning,
06:04
but the eerie whistles
06:07
and curiously melodious chirps
06:10
had a rather more exotic origin.
06:13
Using the very first telephone,
06:16
Watson was in fact
06:18
dialed into the heavens.
06:20
As he correctly guessed,
06:22
some of these sounds were caused
06:24
by activity on the surface of the Sun.
06:26
It was a solar wind
06:29
interacting with our ionosphere
06:31
that he was listening to --
06:33
a phenomena which we can see
06:35
at the extreme northern and southern latitudes of our planet
06:37
as the aurora.
06:40
So whilst inventing the technology
06:42
that would usher in the telecommunications revolution,
06:45
Watson had discovered
06:49
that the star at the center of our solar system
06:51
emitted powerful radio waves.
06:54
He had accidentally been the first person
06:57
to tune in to them.
07:00
Fast-forward 50 years,
07:02
and Bell and Watson's technology
07:04
has completely transformed
07:07
global communications.
07:09
But going from slinging some wire
07:11
across rooftops in Boston
07:13
to laying thousands and thousands of miles of cable
07:15
on the Atlantic Ocean seabed
07:18
is no easy matter.
07:20
And so before long,
07:22
Bell were looking to new technologies
07:24
to optimize their revolution.
07:26
Radio could carry sound without wires.
07:29
But the medium is lossy --
07:32
it's subject to a lot of noise and interference.
07:34
So Bell employed an engineer
07:38
to study those noises,
07:40
to try and find out where they came from,
07:42
with a view towards building
07:44
the perfect hardware codec, which would get rid of them
07:46
so they could think about using radio
07:49
for the purposes of telephony.
07:51
Most of the noises
07:54
that the engineer, Karl Jansky, investigated
07:56
were fairly prosaic in origin.
07:59
They turned out to be lightning
08:01
or sources of electrical power.
08:03
But there was one persistent noise
08:06
that Jansky couldn't identify,
08:09
and it seemed to appear
08:11
in his radio headset
08:13
four minutes earlier each day.
08:15
Now any astronomer will tell you,
08:18
this is the telltale sign
08:20
of something that doesn't originate from Earth.
08:22
Jansky had made a historic discovery,
08:25
that celestial objects could emit radio waves
08:29
as well as light waves.
08:32
Fifty years on
08:34
from Watson's accidental encounter with the Sun,
08:36
Jansky's careful listening
08:39
ushered in a new age of space exploration:
08:41
the radio astronomy age.
08:44
Over the next few years,
08:46
astronomers connected up their antennas to loudspeakers
08:48
and learned about our radio sky,
08:52
about Jupiter and the Sun,
08:54
by listening.
08:56
Let's jump ahead again.
08:58
It's 1964,
09:00
and we're back at Bell Labs.
09:02
And once again,
09:04
two scientists have got a problem with noise.
09:06
Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson
09:09
were using the horn antenna
09:12
at Bell's Holmdel laboratory
09:14
to study the Milky Way
09:16
with extraordinary precision.
09:18
They were really listening
09:20
to the galaxy in high fidelity.
09:22
There was a glitch in their soundtrack.
09:24
A mysterious persistent noise
09:27
was disrupting their research.
09:30
It was in the microwave range,
09:32
and it appeared to be coming
09:34
from all directions simultaneously.
09:36
Now this didn't make any sense,
09:38
and like any reasonable engineer or scientist,
09:40
they assumed that the problem must be the technology itself,
09:43
it must be the dish.
09:46
There were pigeons roosting in the dish.
09:48
And so perhaps once they cleaned up the pigeon droppings,
09:51
get the disk kind of operational again,
09:54
normal operations would resume.
09:56
But the noise didn't disappear.
09:59
The mysterious noise
10:02
that Penzias and Wilson were listening to
10:04
turned out to be the oldest and most significant sound
10:07
that anyone had ever heard.
10:10
It was cosmic radiation
10:12
left over from the very birth of the universe.
10:14
This was the first experimental evidence
10:18
that the Big Bang existed
10:21
and the universe was born at a precise moment
10:23
some 14.7 billion years ago.
10:26
So our story ends
10:31
at the beginning --
10:33
the beginning of all things, the Big Bang.
10:35
This is the noise that Penzias and Wilson heard --
10:38
the oldest sound that you're ever going to hear,
10:41
the cosmic microwave background radiation
10:44
left over from the Big Bang.
10:47
(Fuzz)
10:49
Thanks.
11:04
(Applause)
11:06

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About the speaker:

Honor Harger - Artist
Honor Harger explores the sounds of the sky, using art to connect her audience to the universe.

Why you should listen

Honor Harger is a New Zealand-born artist and curator who has a particular interest in artistic uses of technologies. She's the director of Lighthouse, an arts agency in Brighton, UK. 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 is Radio Astronomy , a radio station broadcasting sounds from space.

From a great interview with Harger from Lift '11:

What does it mean to listen to space?

Whilst our project uses what we describe as "sounds from space", it is important to understand that stars and planets are not directly audible. Sound waves can not propagate in the vacuum of space. However, it is possible for radio waves emitted from celestial bodies, such as Jupiter and the Sun, to be heard by using radio technology. In our galaxy, the Sun is the strongest source of radio waves - so it's the most powerful transmitter in the radio sky. Jupiter also sends us strong radio signals.

What we hear is very curiously linked with our experience of radio here on earth -- the sounds are a bit like the sound of static between the stations.

Photo: Matt Locke / Flickr CC

More profile about the speaker
Honor Harger | Speaker | TED.com