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upcoming event

February 11th, 2010 1 comment

I’ve got an upcoming event planned in New York City that should be pretty interesting. From the UCSC Newsletter:

UCSC astronomer joins composer Philip Glass to explore music of the universe

UC Santa Cruz Astronomer Gregory Laughlin joins acclaimed composer Philip Glass February 21 in a “Brainwave” discussion at the Rubin Art Museum in New York.

For its third year and in conjunction with the exhibition Visions of the Cosmos, Brainwave is a series of 20 sessions this winter and spring that bring together eminent thinkers from multiple disciplines with neuroscientists and astrophysicists to ponder big thoughts about “things that matter.”

Laughlin and Glass appear in the third Brainwave event titled “How Do We Listen to the Music of the Spheres?”

Laughlin is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics whose research delves into orbital dynamics and the evolution of planetary systems. Glass is one of the most influential composers of the past half-century. Though sometimes called a “minimalist,” Glass describes his compositions as “music with repetitive structures.”

Laughlin said he and Glass will explore commonalities between music and orbital dynamics. The museum’s initiative to pair the two was sparked in part by Laughlin’s articles on his blog that delve into ways to “sonify” planetary movements.

He developed software to map planetary systems as audible waveforms. He said he became intrigued by the realization that planetary systems can be used as a type of nonlinear digital synthesizer and can provide an enormous palette of sound — sounds never before heard.

The Laughlin/Glass Brainwave session begins at 6 p.m. Sunday, February 21 at the Rubin Museum of Art at 150 West 17 St., New York City. Admission is $25.

Over the next week, as I’m preparing for the event, I’ll be working extensively with the sonification capability of the systemic console. Just below, is a reprinted post that touches on this very cool, and still relatively unexplored feature. If you’ve worked with the Console’s N-body sonification, and if you’ve found interesting results, feel free to send me .fit files — an extraordinarily effective form of compression(!) — and I may be able to use them in the discussion.

Potentially the most interesting feature on the downloadable systemic console is the “sonify button”, which integrates the model planetary system specified by the state of the console sliders and produces a .wav format CD-quality audio file of the resulting radial velocity waveform. Not interested in planets? The console is a stand-alone non-linear digital synthesizer. It’s capable of producing strange, remarkable, musically useful sounds. They merely need to be located within the uncountable infinity of solutions to the gravitational N-body problem.

First, use the console to build an interesting multi-planet system (for this purpose, there’s no need to try to fit whatever data is in the window.) Then click the sonify button. This brings up a dialogue window which enables the user to make several specifications for the sound file that is produced.

console sonify dialogue box

The most important user-specified parameter is the frequency onto which the orbital period of the shortest-period planet on the console is mapped. If, for example, the innermost planet has a period of 365.25 days, then a 440 Hz map will play 440 years worth of evolution in one second. (440 Hz corresponds to the A below middle C.) Mapping the radial velocity curve onto a high-frequency note extends the total number of orbits that go into the sample, and thus increases the integration time required to produce the sample. You can also specify the length of the sample, and you can exert simple control over the attack and decay rate of the envelope for the overall waveform.

Once you’ve produced the sound file, it appears in the “soundClips” subdirectory within the systemic parent directory. Both of these directories are automatically created when you download and expand the console — see the instruction set for the downloadable console for more details. With a Macintosh, you get the best results if you play the sample right from the folder. i-Tunes seems to want to convert the samples to .mp3 format in a manner that introduces audible noise, and we’re not yet sure how to resolve this issue.

To the extent that planets orbit independently of one another, the console behaves like a simple additive synthesizer, in which the individual Kepler waveforms add to form a composite sound. Much more interesting, is the situation when planets experience significant gravitational interaction, leading, for example, to resonance and to nonlinear instability (here are examples, 1, 2, from the resources page of both types of waveforms). Close encounters provide discontinuities between individual blocks of sound that resemble the results of granular synthesis.

The strongest 2-planet mean-motion resonances occur when the pair of planets share a common period and engage in a one-to-one resonant motion. There are a variety of different one-to-one resonances, including binary planet orbits (e.g. Earth and Moon), trojan configurations, and generalizations of retrograde satellite orbits. In this last category, one can have two planets with the same semi-major axis, but with different eccentricities. If one starts the planets in the following configuration, then the motion is dynamically stable, and evolves in a complicated way over time.

evolution of eccentric 1:1 resonance

The motion leads to an interesting audio wave-form, in which you can hear the system cycling between configurations in which both planets are modestly eccentric and configurations in which one orbit is nearly circular while the other one is highly eccentric. As a specific example, set the console to the following configuration: P1=P2=10 days, M1=M2=0.3 Mjup, MA1=180., MA2=190., e1=0.9, e2=0.1, long1=0.0, long2=0.0. If you increase MA2 to about 225 degrees while keeping the other parameters fixed, you’ll hear the system go unstable.

Evolving, high-eccentricity orbits tend to have an insect-like quality, which brings to mind the 1986 album, The Insect Musicians, by Greame Revell (formerly of SPK). From the album jacket:

For the two years 1984-85, Graeme Revell traveled from Australia to Europe, to Africa, Indonesia and North America recording and negotiating copyrights of insect sound recordings. It took another full year sampling and metamorphosing some forty sounds thus gathered using the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, to produce this record. The only sounds used are those of insects, altered digitally and combined into a unique orchestra of instruments, an orchestra of strange and delicate timbres, music of natural rhythm and texture.

Categories: worlds Tags:

mp3s of the spheres

January 18th, 2007 Comments off

Image Source.

New users are still streaming into If you’re a first-time visitor, welcome aboard. You’ll find information that you need to get started in this post from several days ago.

The EZ-2-install downloadable systemic console is the primary software tool that we provide for analyzing data from extrasolar planetary systems. The tutorials 1,2, and 3 are the best way to learn how to use the console. Over the past few months, we’ve been adding a range of new capabilities that go beyond the features described in the tutorials and which improve the overall utility of the software. We’ll be explaining how these new features work in upcoming posts, and for our black-belt users, we’re also putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive technical manual.

When we designed the console, our main goals were to produce a scientifically valuable tool, while at the same time make something that’s fun and easy to use. Early on, we settled on the analogy with a sound mixing board, in which different input signals (planets) are combined to make a composite signal.

We’ve pushed the audio analogy further by adding a “sonify” button to the console. When sonification is activated, you can turn the stellar radial velocity curve into an actual audible waveform. If you create a system with several or more planets, these waveforms can develop some very bizarre sounds. From a practical standpoint, one can often tell whether a planetary system is stable by listening to the corresponding audio signal. Alternately, the console can be used as a nonlinear digital synthesizer to create a very wide variety of tones.

Here are links (one, and two) to past posts that discuss the sonification button in more detail. If you come up with some useful sounds, then by all means upload the corresponding planetary configurations to the systemic back-end.

Categories: non-technical, systemic faq Tags:


May 11th, 2006 Comments off

Many systemic readers have not yet experienced the thrill of fitting planetary systems with the systemic console because the console fails to properly launch in their browser. The standard refrain for the last several months has been, “We’re working on it…”

Tomorrow, we’ll be releasing an upgraded version of the console in downloadable form. We’ve tested this version on Mac OSX, Windows, and Linux platforms, and we’ve gotten it to work on all three.

The downloadable version of the console will contain a number of new features, including a sonification button that brings up the following window:

console sonification controller

Sonification takes the N-body initial condition corresponding to the current positions of the console sliders and performs an integration of the equations of motion to produce a self-consistent radial velocity curve for the star. The radial velocity curve is then interpreted as an audio waveform and the resulting audio signal is written to the .wav format. You, the user, choose the duration of the integration and the audio frequency to which the innermost planet’s orbital frequency is mapped (440 Hertz, for example, corresponds to the A below middle C). A simple envelope function is also provided in order to avoid strange-sounding glitches associated with sharp turn-on and turn-off transients.

A single planet in a circular orbit produces a pure sine-wave tone. Very boring. The introduction of orbital eccentricity adds additional frequency content to the single-planet signal, and produces a variety of buzzing hornlike timbres, depending on the chosen values for the eccentricity and longitude of periastron. (For example, here are tones corresponding to keplerian orbits with [1] e=0.5, omega=90 deg; [2] e=0.9, omega=150 deg; and [3] e=0.9, omega=312 deg).

Hewitt, Conceptual Physics, p. 284

I scanned the above photo from my groovy 1974 edition of Conceptual Physics. Author Paul Hewitt is using a pipe to generate what looks to be a 420 Hz tone. The oscilliscope trace indicates that the pipe is producing both a fundamental frequency as well as a first overtone. A similar effect can be had with the console by adding an additional planet and sonifying the resulting radial velocity curve. For example, a quick fit to the 55 Cancri data-set generates a flute-like timbre that arises primarily from the near 3:1 commensurability of the orbits of the 14.65 and 44.3 day planets. Here’s a detail from the waveform:

55 Cancri Waveform

And here’s the .wav format audio file corresponding to the 55 Cancri fit.

Systems in 2:1 mean-motion resonances can generate some very weird audio waveforms. Oklo favorite GJ 876 was the first (and is still by far the best) example of a 2:1 resonant configuration. GJ 876’s audio signal, however, is pretty lackluster (the .wav file is here). This is because the system is so deeply in the resonance that the waveform has a nearly invariant long time-baseline structure. Much more interesting from an audio standpoint, are the newly discovered 2:1 resonant systems HD 128311 and HD 73526. With the console, one can work up a quick fit to the HD 128311 data set which has one 2:1 resonant argument in circulation and the other in libration.

a fit to the 128311 system

The long-term orbital motion is completely bizarre (as shown by this .mpeg animation) and the corresponding audio file [.wav file here] has a certain demented quality. The signal definitely evolves on longer timescales than shown in this snapshot of the fit:

waveform for hd 128311

Results-oriented planet hunters should definitely be asking, “Does sonification have any scientific utility?”

Maybe. I’ll be posting more fairly soon on why we think sonification might be useful, but here’s a straw-man example. Call up the data set for HD 37124 on the console. There are a lot of ways to get an acceptable orbital model for this system, including a panoply of far-out configurations like this one:

hd 37124 alternate orbital configuraton

The corresponding waveform looks like this:

hd 37124 alternate orbital fit

If we sonify the fit, we can literally hear the system going unstable (.wav file here). The question is, can a trained ear “hear” signs of instability well before the actual drama of collisions and ejections occurs?

Categories: systemic faq Tags:

Where we’re at

May 4th, 2006 Comments off

banana leaf

The systemic collaboration website has now been on the air for six months. Traffic has been increasingly steadily. By the end of April, has been averaging 250 visitors a day, with a total of 1661 unique “real” visitors for the month. (This brings to mind a philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest, and only robots, worms, or replies with special HTTP status codes comment, did it make a sound?)

april showers

The Systemic Team is enthusiastic about a number of improvements that will be coming on line very soon. Here’s a rundown of what to look for during May:

1. Aaron Wolf is putting the finishing touches on the next release of the systemic console. The updated version will have a number of subtle improvements to the existing controls, and will have several completely new features, including a sonification utility and a folding window. Sonification allows the user to create a .wav format audio file of the radial velocity waveform produced by a given configuration of planets orbiting a star:

console sonification controller

As we’ll discuss in future posts, the ability to “listen” to dynamical systems provides a startlingly effective and completely novel way to evaluate the long-term orbital stability of a hypothesized system of planets. For example, when a configuration of planets is stable, one generally gets a sound with a steady timbre: [example 1.5 MB .wav file corresponding to a stable planetary system].

On the other hand, when a configuration of planets is unstable, the radial velocity waveform of the star can get pretty crazy, which can lead to an inifinite variety of very weird sounds: [example 0.5 MB .wav file corresponding to a dynamically unstable planetary system].

2. Stefano Meschiari, who will be transferring as a graduate student to the UCSC graduate program this Fall (yes!), has developed a PHP-based collaborative environment for the systemic project. Think flickr, think myspace, think the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, think seti@home, and think effective scientific collaboration all rolled into one. I’m not kidding, folks, it’s amazing.

Categories: systemic faq Tags: