Sound technology, dark matter (with a side of destiny)

On my mind, for a couple of reasons, were Milton’s lines from Paradise Lost about the wild abyss, that metaphorical place in which all the elements in their pregnant causes mixed (II, 910-913), until, or, as the poet writes,

Unless the almighty maker them ordain

His dark materials to create more worlds.

Out of these dark materials, potential-filled and struggling, are created–ordained!– more worlds, more life. I have always found solace in this imagining: of the vital importance of darkness to life and the understanding of light.

There were two reasons I was thinking about the lines of the poem. The first was the story of these remarkable people assisted by technology to communicate via music. Relating the story to a friend I welled up and wept with the magnificence of the project and what it enabled and empowered in the participants. Do watch the video:


The second reason followed my exposure to the first and is related in the sense that it, too, is a story of a kind of darkness finding light (or perceptibility, sound, in this case) in the most beautiful of ways. It was the announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves: the discovery of, as Alan Lightman writes [here], ‘we have a new sense organ by which to fathom the cosmos.’ That because ‘astronomy grew Black Holesears’ this marvel, the collision of dark matter a few billion years back, was HEARD! (You didn’t feel it, did you, passing through the solar system on Sept.14, 2015, but it came through you, too, it did.) Right out there in that wild abyss of space they–we!–experienced gravity chirp! How astonishing! And I, I sitting in my room, with a phone held up to my ear that felt more like a sea shell than anything, could hear this! I am awestruck! There are musicians who are making things (what humans do at their best) ever more wonderful. Listen, for example, to this recording (oh my! How like a singing bowl it sounds. I’ve been listening to it as I’ve been writing this post). What glories human creativity is capable of!

I’m interested in sound (as I’ve written in these posts – Hearing the Music, Listening to Good Scents, and Cosmic Pop & Sizzle) and in synaesthesia, and was grateful to MIT’s Allan Adam’s [TED talk] explanation of the differences between light and sound and what the meaning of the discovery.

​. . . LIGO acts like an ear more than it does like an eye. . . Visible light has a wavelength, a size, that’s much smaller than the things around you, the features on people’s faces, the size of your cell phone. And that’s really useful, because it lets you make an image or a map of the things around you, by looking at the light coming from different spots in the scene about you.

Sound is different. Audible sound has a wavelength that can be up to 50 feet long. And that makes it really difficult –in fact, in practical purposes, impossible — to make an image of something you really care about. Your child’s face. Instead, we use sound to listen for features like pitch and tone and rhythm and volume to infer a story behind the sounds. [e.g.] That’s Alice talking. That’s Bob interrupting. Silly Bob.
So, the same is true of gravitational waves. We can’t use them to make simple images of things out in the Universe.But by listening to changes in the amplitude and frequency of those waves, we can hear the story that those waves are telling. And at least for LIGO, the frequencies that it can hear are in the audio band. So if we convert the wave patterns into pressure waves and air, into sound, we can literally hear the Universe speaking to us. For example, listening to gravity, just in this way, can tell us a lot about the collision of two black holes..
LIGO is an entirely new way to observe the Universe that we’ve never had before. It’s a way that lets us hear the Universe and hear the invisible.

And from this music, Adams and Chapman write, is revealed

a set of stories about the universe

that can only be heard in the language of gravitational waves;

stories that would otherwise be lost in the cosmic noise of the Big Bang.


What glories you are capable of, Humanity, what extraordinariness! And, yes, go ahead: celebrate your ingenuity. Enjoy it! Also remember, on perhaps a darker note, that now there is a question that hangs around your destiny. Milton’s poem goes on:

Into this wild abyss the wary fiend

Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,

Pondering his voyage . . . 

As we must ponder ours.

Raymond Pierrehumbert writes in response to the discovery of gravitational waves, a good sobering/encouraging (?) article in the NYT considering the urgency of climate change that goes by way of a new field called Destiny Studies.

The day of the release of the spectacular LIGO gravitational wave discovery is a good time to be pondering human destiny, the great things we can achieve as a species if only we don’t do ourselves in, and the responsibility to provide a home for future generations to flourish in. It is beyond awesome that we little lumps of protoplasm squinting out at the Universe from our shaky platform in the outskirts of an insignificant galaxy can, after four decades of indefatigable effort, detect and characterize a black hole merger over a billion light years away.

This is just one of the most dramatic examples of what we are capable of, given the chance to be our best selves. . . . There’s no limit to what we can accomplish as a species. [Read more here . . . ]

There is much cause for hope because ‘there is no limit to what we can accomplish as a species’!

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