Creating space music from rotating molecules

Light frequencies of rotating molecules have been used to create music, interpreting a star forming region in space. The music is created by German music student Vera Matenaar, collaborating with Chalmers astronomer Hannah Calcutt, among others.
This work has been led by Vera Matenaar, a student in Innovative Music Technologies at TRIAGON Academy in Germany, in an effort to translating sounds of the molecular universe into music. She has used data from the research project PILS - Protostellar Interferometric Line survey, which is mapping light frequencies from more than a 100 different molecules, observed by the Alma telescope in Chile. The musical experiment has involved several astronomers, among them Chalmers astronomer Hannah Calcutt, currently at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland.

– The motions of these molecules can be expressed using their measured frequencies, which is convenient because musical tones can also be expressed as frequencies. For example, orchestras tend to tune to a ‘concert A’, which can be expressed as a frequency of 440 Hz. We could therefore draw a parallel, and translate these rotating molecule frequencies into audible tones, explains Vera Matenaar.


The duration of the recording of the frequency spectrum (14 hours) provided the musical structure of 14 bars. Subsequently the identified tones are played within the frame of 14 bars and in the order they actually occur based on the measurement of the molecules. 


Through her supervisor, Vera came into contact with several astronomers, including Hannah Calcutt, an astrophysicist working with the PILS project. 


– I’m a musician myself as well as an astronomer, so I have thought in the past that this combination of interests could lead to something. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the time to explore this idea at all. So when I was contacted, I thought this would be a very cool project to be involved in, says Hannah Calcutt, working at Chalmers at the time of her involvement in the project, but currently an adjunct professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland: 


Hannah, do you think that arts and science collaborations like this one have a role to play?

– We’re in an age right now where a lot of people are distrusting science, and I think this kind of project is important because it allows people to connect with science in a different way.


– When I was at school, I was taught that art and science are two very different pathways. However, I find that having a creative side is very important for scientists to be able to communicate new ideas clearly. Sometimes displaying a beautiful image or using some other kind of medium to clearly represent your science can be a really important thing to get people excited and to encourage discussions about what you’re doing, says Hannah Calcutt.


Read more about the project on the European Southern Observatory’s website​​, which the text above is based on. 


This is not the first time that observations from Alma have been used in a music project. The spiral nebula around the star R Sculptoris, which was studied by Matthias Maercker and colleagues, was immortalized in the musical artwork ALMA Music Box​.  


Image credits.

The Rho Ophiuchi star forming region, located in the constellation of Ophiuchus. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

One of the ALMA array’s high-precision antennas, seen underneath the reddish glow of the Carina Nebula — a star forming region in the constellation of Carina.

Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi

Page manager Published: Wed 03 Mar 2021.