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The Sound of the Universe

June 22, 2005

 

The blind John Milton said that if we could hear the

celestial music of the spheres, time would reverse itself

And we would glimpse the purity of Eden and the golden age of

The Universe. In a sense, he was right. (Seife, 2004, p. 75)

 

 

            Music and the cosmos have been inextricable linked for centuries.  Since Pythagoras’ Music of the Spheres in Ancient Greece, 6th century B.C. to Johannes Kepler’s Harmonius Munde in 1619 to modern day science, music has provided western scientists with a springboard for understanding and seeing our universe.

 

Both Charles Seife and Stephen D. Landy explain how western scientists continue to adopt musical analogies and sonic analysis to “glimpse the golden age of the universe” (Seife 2004, p. 73) and determine its shape, size and fate. In his book, Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, Seife (2004, pp. 71-83) describes how scientists have used acoustic oscillations to chart the vast cosmic microwave background (CMB), which Seife describes as “the echo” of the celestial music that Pythagoras believed to fill the cosmos (2004, p.75). Stephen D. Landy (1999. P.38-45), a physicist working in the United States of America, and a team of scientists also used “techniques drawn from the analysis of music” (Landy, 1999 p.38), to map 26,000 galaxy clusters in their Las Campanas survey (1988-1994).  These scientific methods, inspired by music, have note only enabled scientists to see the universe, but they have also enabled them to chart and hear its magnanimous sounds.

 

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In Ancient Greece, Pythagoras of Samos (c. 469-475 B.C.) studied the vibrations of a plucked lyre string and concluded: “there is geometry in the humming of the strings…there is music in the spacing of the [celestial] spheres” (Calter, 1998). Pythagoras taught how the movement of the celestial bodies is reflected in the intervals of plucked strings in simple, mathematical “music rations” of 2:1, 3:2, 4:3 and 5:4. “The motion of these spheres, he reasoned, must produce sounds. Their distances and their speeds must be in the same rations as musical harmonies” (Landy, 1999 p.45). The rotation of these five concentric, crystalline spheres, where the planets and stars were attached, created the infamous “harmony of the spheres” that most people could not hear “because our world is made up of different stuff than the heavens above” (Seife, 2004 p.72-73).

 

Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans, also discovered the dodecahedron, the fifth regular Platonic solid (a 3-dimensional shape with multiple sides, in the shape of a hexagon, all equal in length). Johannes Kepler (1571-1639), a grandfather of astronomy, believed that harmonic ratios “Might be derived from these solids” and that these solids could help describe planetary orbits (1999 p.45).  Kepler devoted much of his life to understanding the harmony of the spheres, brought us his famed Three Laws of Motion after writing his Harmonius Munde (1619), “Harmonious World.”  Landy coins Kepler’s discoveries as the second music of the spheres, while Pythagoras’ theories are the first (1999, p.45).

 

Cosmological discoveries of the last century make up the “new music of the spheres” according to Landy (2004, p.45). Unlike Kepler’s attempt to explain planetary orbits through harmonic ratios, scientists in the 20th century use acoustical models based on how human ears perceive sound to analyze the cosmic microwave background (CMB) (Seife, 2004 p.253).

 

The CMB is the light that was released about 400,000 years after the Big Bang … [and] appears as nearly uniform hiss of microwaves coming from all areas of the sky.  The CMB carries a wealth of information about the early universe and is a vital tool for cosmology. (Seife 2004, p.253)

 

In chapter five of his book, The Music of the Spheres (the cosmic microwave background), Seife states that “the cosmic background radiation is an echo from an age when the entire universe was an enormous musical instrument, ringing with the sound from the big bang” (2004, p.75). He explains how using over- and under-pressure waves, overtones and frequencies scientists were able to chart fluctuations between gravity and radiation pressure waves in the CMB.  Because the behavior of these pressure waves is “Very similar to acoustic waves…but on a much greater scale” they are dubbed “acoustical oscillations,” encoders of “information about the nature of the cosmos in its infancy” (Seife 2004, p.76).  Understanding what the universe was like post-Big Bang is important to cosmologists and physicists because the CMB may hold the answers to what is causing our universe to expand at a quickening pace.  It is also getting us closer to hearing the third music of the spheres.

 

Theorists such as P.J.E. Peebles also used models based on acoustic analysis to calculate the CMB that is constructed of large fundamental hot spot peaks and cold spot valleys (Seife 2004, pp. 81-2).  Peebles’ theory was confirmed when observatories such as BOOMERANG (Balloon Observations of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics) and DASI (the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer) produces images of the CMB’s hot and cold spots in 1998 and 2000-2002, respectively.  These grueling and chilly experiments in Antarctica also confirmed that the shape of our universe is flat and its “music” can be seen and heard as a faint, static hiss that, according to Zel’dovich in the 1970s, hisses louder in the hotter spots of the CMB and weaker in the cooler spots. Stephen Landy claims that this hissing, or “anisotropic music” of the universe is akin to pink noise (1999, p.45).

 

Landy and his Las Campanas survey team “reliably measure[d galaxy] clustering at large scales” using power-spectrum analysis, a.k.a. harmonic analysis (Landy 1999, p.43). They discovered that the clustering of the galaxies, which is is a result of gravity amplified fluctuations after the big bang, follows the random distribution of pink noise.

 

The power spectrum is a measure of the strength of power fluctuations as a function of frequency.  It is what the graphic equalizer of a stereo displays…. Noise with a flat power spectrum, corresponding to equal power at all frequencies, is called white noise….. Another special power spectrum is that of pink noise, in which each octave delivers the same power, [such as] a waterfall. (1999, p.43)

 

The clustering is not even and flat, but more randomized like a coastline.  By unsing power spectrum analysis, Landy’s survey challenged the cosmological principle that the universe is wholly homogenous and isotropic because the randomized noise distribution of pink noise is anisotropic.  However, as Landy explains, combining “the concept of an isotropic universe with an understanding of random fields [via harmonic analysis]” (1999, p.45) scientists can rest assured that their universe remains isotropic.

 

Landy and his team relied on power spectrum analysis because “the mathematical analysis of the distribution of galaxies and of random noise is identical” (1999, p.43).  It is so reliable that, in the 1960s, physicists Edward R. Harrison and Yakov B. Zel’dovich derived a power-law in the shape of a three dimensional pink-noise spectrum for “this primordial power spectrum” (Landy, 1999 p.43).  The power law worked well on a small scale but fell apart on a larger scale, which actually helped Einstein’s cosmological constant (the existence of an anti-matter, or Alpha) of an isotropic universe stay in place. It also could not explain “how such a spectrum would have arisen” (1999, p.44), a popular dilemma of cosmologists and physicists today.

 

While Landy’s Las Campanas survey builds upon the usefulness of acoustical vibrations and sonic architecture that Pythagoras once used in Ancient Greece, it is also not without holes: “With a pure-noise process, walls and voids would occasionally appear by chance…. They would be statistical fluctuations or chance super-positions, rather than true structures” (Landy 1999, p.44). This “Flub” again points to the need of further probing into dark energy.

 

Interestingly, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory detected sound from a super-massive black hole in the Perseus cluster (250 million light years from Earth) in 2002.  The tone of Bb, specifically “57 octaves below middle-C” is the “Deepest ever ‘note’ from an object in the universe (Fabian, 2002). As Pythagoras predicted, we cannot hear these sounds because the “frequency is over a million billion times deeper than the limits of human hearing, [making] the sound much too deep to be heard” (2002). Steve Allen, of the IoA and a co-investigator in the research believes “these sound waves may be the key in figuring out how galaxy clusters, the largest structures in the universe, grow” [and] the tremendous amounts of energy carried by these sounds waves may solve a longstanding problem in astrophysics” (Fabian, 2002); problems such as the make-up of the CMB.

 

In comparing present day science with the past, awesome leaps and bounds have been made in probing the true face and nature of the universe.  I can’t help but wonder if cosmology’s tremendous and innate curiosity s really just leading us to rediscover a Divine Creator? Perhaps, as Einstein’s Cosmological Constant remains steady and in tact, and as the data pours in from a successful run at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, “our mortal sense unable to discern the empyrean harmony” will (Seife 2004, p.75) will dissipate and we will once again hear Pythagoras’ music of the spheres on the great galactic radio station in the sky, and come face-to-face with our creator, the dark DJ Alpha.

 

Regardless, the belief of sound as a primordial force in the universe is nothing new. India’s concept of Nada Brahma, or God/Creation is sound and Christianity’s Old Testament states in Genesis: “In the beginning there was the word” echo this sentiment. Further, many Eastern spiritual practices also believe in the power of chanting mantras as a means to bring one closer to the Divine, and music has been used in countless rituals dating back to our pre-historic ancestors. But in the realm of physics and cosmology, as Pythagoras, Kepler, Peebles, Zel’dovich, Harrison, Landy and physicists working in the COBE, BOOMERANG and DASI observatories have all demonstrated, sonic and harmonic analysis aids in the mapping and charting of our cosmos and the detection of mysterious sounds in our dark universe. These methods are not perfect, but they have spurred inquisitive scientists for centuries.

 

Reference List

 

Calter (1998) Pythagoras and the Music of the Spheres. Retrieved June 15, 2005 from http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/math5.geometry/_unit3/unit3.html.

 

Fabian, A. et al. (2004, November 29). A Deep Chandra observation of the Perseus cluster: shocks and ripples. Retrieved June 15, 2005 from http://chandra.harvard.edu/photo/2003/perseus.

 

Landy, Stephen. 1999. “Mapping the Universe.” Scientific American, 280(6), 38-46.

 

Seife, Charles. 2004.  Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe. New York: Penguin Books.

 

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