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The 21st Century’s “Music of the Spheres”

Scientists and artists are giving voice to everything from planets to black holes, enriching the research experience and bringing wonders of the universe to new audiences.
Matt Russo

The supermassive black hole at the core of NGC 1275, a galaxy in the heart of the Perseus cluster, moans like a goblin in a Halloween haunted house. The moan is produced as radiation from an accretion disk around the 800-million-solar-mass black hole pushes against gas falling into the black hole’s maw. The interaction creates sound waves in the gas, producing the done sreepest sound ever discovered—57 octaves below middle C.

“It’s hundreds of keyboards too low for us to hear,” said Kimberly Kowal Arcand, a visualization scientist who works with Chandra X-Ray Observatory data at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The sound doesn’t travel across the intergalactic void to Earth—at least not directly. Instead, astronomers see the ripples in images of the cluster’s gas clouds. A team of researchers converted the light waves to sound, then pitched them into the range of human hearing. “We kept [the sound] on the low end because it wouldn’t make intuitive sense to pitch it higher,” said Matt Russo, a physicist at the University of Toronto who worked with Arcand and others to produce the sound.

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