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Meet the man giving a voice to the sun

Dec 4, 2014

Credit Flickr user Jason Major / Flickr

Robert Alexander works to give the sun a voice. As a sonification specialist at the University of Michigan, Alexander turns data from the sun into music. 

And not only does it sound beautiful, but it can help further our understanding of the celestial body.

Alone, data collected from satellites around the sun sound like a gentle roar or low hum. Changes indicate the sun becoming more or less active over time, or as Alexander likes to call it, "heartbeats."

Here's the sound of the sun's rotation over 40 years:

With his experience as a composer, Alexander has created a solar symphony with the data collected over a year.

Alexander explains that with it, "we're hearing the density of the particles coming off of the sun. We're hearing how quickly they're flying. And that's all being described by these instruments." The pitch increases indicate specific chemical ratios rising. This can help indicate solar flares and forecast changes, and alert us to shield satellites to protect their instrumentation.

Alexander has also created an auditory representation of traveling to the sun. In it we can hear solar wind velocity through the whooshing sound and "voices" that indicate the temperatures of solar winds.

So what are the scientific ramifications of these creations? Alexander says a number of new discoveries have already been made. A stronger harmonic presence was found with carbon than oxygen. "That then led a research scientist to do a little bit more digging and that now gives us a better indicator of where the solar wind is coming from," Alexander says.

With a trained ear, scientists can pick out subtle wave interactions that had been previously overlooked. These new methods help to utilize all senses to understand data further, or as Alexander says, its "bringing scientists to their senses."

"That very idea of giving a voice to the sun," Alexander says, "that's awesome. That puts a smile on my face."

*Listen to our full conversation with Robert Alexander above