The Sound of a Fermi Gamma-ray Burst

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What does the universe look like at high energies? Thanks to the FermiLarge Area Telescope (LAT), we can extend our sense of sight to “see”the universe in gamma rays. But humans not only have a sense of sight,we also have a sense of sound. If we could listen to the high-energyuniverse, what would we hear? What does the universe sound like?


A gamma-ray burst, the most energetic explosions in the universe, converted to music. Made by Sylvia Zhu (music) and Judy Racusin (animation)

Every photon has its own energy and frequency; the higher the energy, the higher the frequency. Some photons have just the right frequencies for us to see them as different colors, while others — such as the gamma rays studied by the Fermi LAT — are much too energetic to be seen with our eyes. Sound waves have frequencies too, and similarly, we can hear some of them as musical notes. So what happens if we convert high-energy photons into musical notes?

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the most powerful explosions in the universe. GRB 080916C was a particularly energetic burst that occurred in September of 2008. The brightest part of it lasted less than a minute, during which the LAT detected hundreds of gamma rays from the extremely-distant explosion; when we converted the data to music, we slowed the rates down by a factor of five times to hear the individual gamma rays better.

In translating the gamma-ray measurements into musical notes we assigned the photons to be “played” by different instruments (harp, cello, or piano) based on the probabilities that they came from the burst. This particular conversion is a fairly simple one; We built this on work done by other members of the LAT team (Luca Baldini and Alex Drlica-Wagner) who explored converting our data into music in different ways.

In the beginning of the song, before the burst starts, the harp plucks out a few lonely notes. After about half a minute, the piano joins in on top of the harp background, and the notes begin to pile on more and more rapidly. The cello enters the scene as the burst begins in earnest.

We created an accompanying animation to help see what is happening. The top panel shows each individual gamma-ray. The colors refer to low (red), medium (blue) and high (green) quality gamma-rays (played by harp, cello and piano respectively). The energy of the gamma-ray is on the y-axis (higher energy gamma-rays are towards the top of the plot) and the arrival time of the gamma-rays are on the x-axis (later arriving gamma-rays are further to the right). The vertical white line tells you where the music is currently playing. The bottom panel shows the number of gamma-rays (which is the number of notes played) in each time slice.

By converting gamma rays into musical notes, we have a new way of representing the data and listening to the universe.

16 thoughts on “The Sound of a Fermi Gamma-ray Burst

  1. LH Ld Elon Post author

    sounds like the twinkle of crystals on string, colliding in the winds.

    Z axis volume, gives thee impression of ground, high peak mountains, a land, the formation of hills.

  2. Nick Post author

    That was haunting, i think colored by the choice of instruments a lot, however it is easier to appreciate that choice from your explanation. It does sound like the universe is sad. Also, I don’t think the coolness of this can be understated in any way.

  3. evab Post author

    A pregnant mother weights less the stomach than

    it is to say that energy of mass when is in union conjuction of planets weghts less than separate planets

  4. guest Post author

    So, can one make just anything sound beautiful by applying some algorithm that maps process variable to consonant musical notes?

  5. guest Post author

    WOW! They should covert all forms of the EMT band into audio. The universes does sing.

  6. guest Post author

    Indeed music is in everything … The Universe is alive,we are all a part of everything.

  7. nate Post author

    So are actual photon frequencies transposed as well? I could see if they’re coming in octaves, because they’re logarithmic, but I’m hearing intervals of minor thirds and fifths. Are these really relative to the photon frequencies? There’s no frequencies in between? Or are those maybe filtered out? Or are the instruments not sensitve enough to detect gamma ray frequencies at that resolution?

  8. Maria M Post author

    Beautiful, as Beethoven’s music, a representation of the patterns in nature. I so love NASA!

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  10. bizworldusa Post author

    This is an excellent post.
    Is that harmony is a universal law?
    Thank you for sharing this
    Bizworldusa

  11. Tom M Post author

    I find this fascinating and beautiful, and keep coming back to it.

    I’m interested in visualising data and music (as well as astronomy), so I’m really drawn to this. It’s great to see the graphs as the music plays, but I’d like to look at other ways of visualising it for an MA project. Would it be possible to get hold of the data and / or music files of the individual instruments?

  12. Alison Kim Post author

    Hey Sylvia, we were talking about this at Silvain’s going away party. Beautiful music! Would love to try and visualize it using Processing (programming language).

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