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Musica Universalis

Them black holes be jammin'.

My introduction to the concept of music of the spheres — musica univeralis — happened when I was a tween.

I thought Pythagoras was kinda weird, but I loved the idea that the universe was a beyond a behemoth musical instrument. Then I read Kepler’s take. Cool, but then he had to go and make it about religion. Yeah, I know — different time, different place. Still turned me off. I dropped out of that omnipotent deity thing when I was 10.

There was a 70s soap opera-comedy called, appropriately enough, “Soap.” In one episode, Jessica, a ditzy wise woman, said “life ought to be set to music.” To me, truer words were never spoken.

Then the Walkman came out, and life literally became set to music. Since the Walkman’s introduction, I’ve never been without a portable player. Back then, such things used cassette tapes. Some models had radio, but I never bothered with those. When DJ’s started talking too damn much, that’s when I stopped listening.

Setting my life to music.

In law school, I was never without it. A really cool one, about the size of a cigarette pack. The cassette was bigger than the thing, and it really looked stupid when using it. Far more convenient that the bulky Walkman, though. I’d put the day’s tape selections and the player in my backpack, headphones on, then bike to school. The only time I took the ‘phones off was while in class. Soon as class was over, they went back on. Volume turned up. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, and I didn’t want anybody trying to talk to me. Except for a very few, they were waaay too stuck on themselves. Annoying as fuck, they were.

In the 90s, I read a Scientific American article about an astronomer who’d recorded the stars. Well, not quite. She assigned notes to the different light frequencies, and let the stars do their thing. Star song, she called it. She produced a CD, but I never got around to buying it.

So, I was today years old when I learned NASA has been recording the universe for decades. Radio signals from Saturn, Jupiter, and its moons. The bow shocks from the solar wind crashing into Jupiter’s magnetic field. Sounds like the static you hear when you’re almost out of a radio station’s range. Well, it is, really. The whistling Voyager 1 sent back when it crossed the heliosphere into interstellar space. And now, sound. As long as there’s a medium through which waves can travel, the waves can be converted. Gas. Plasma. Whatever works, hey?

The universe sings.

I can’t believe I didn’t know they were doing this, and for so long. I’ve been YouTube bingeing like a maniac.

I listened to the sonification of the black hole at the heart of the Perseus galaxy cluster released in May. Fifty-seven octaves below middle C on the piano. After listening to the clip, I read the comments. Many of them shocked the hell out of me. They found the recording disturbing, even scary. I think it’s beautiful. Like dream music. Closing my eyes, I had visions of floating, soaring, what have you. It brought to mind the soundtracks from those 50s sci fi B-movies.

I also find it strangely comforting. But then, I suppose I would.

Music of my dreams.

Listening to the static, the burps, the whistles, and the black hole, made me think about what Jessica had said. That life should be set to music. Well, Jess, it’s more than just life. It’s entire worlds. It’s the entire universe. Making music.

I think she’d be pleased to know her instincts were right.

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