We’re made of star stuff, as Carl Sagan once said. Even crazier, elements heavier than iron on the periodic table mostly come from the remnants of exploding stars, or supernovae. And what better way to explain our connectedness to these explosions than with the sounds of stars themselves?
That’s what songwriter Meklit Hadero (who performs as Meklit) has done in her new song, “Supernova.” Not only does the song rock, but its message and use of data turned to sound, or sonification, make it an especially cool tune for a science fan.
Listen here on Gizmodo first:
“We’re in a place right now politically in the United States where there’s a lot of othering, saying ‘you don’t belong to us,’” Hadero told Gizmodo. “Others are trying to heal from the kind of othering that’s happened historically.” But, she said, “there’s a sense of that majesty being brought into every single personal experience or every single person or culture: We all have the same origin,” that is, we’re all star stuff.
“Look how big ‘us’ really is.”
Hadero is a TED Fellow and speaker who first started experimenting with star sounds in music while she was working on the hip-hop space opera, Copperwire Earthbound, back in 2011 and 2012. Another TED Fellow introduced her to Jon Jenkins, Kepler Mission Analysis Lead at NASA Ames Research Center who makes sonifications of data collected by the Kepler telescope. “The particular one she liked was KIC 12268220, which is an eclipsing binary,” a hot pair of stars orbiting each other in Earth’s line of sight so one eclipses the other, Jenkins told Gizmodo.
These sounds come from turning information on the star’s light output into sound waves with amplitudes (intensities) and frequencies (pitches or colors). That’s essentially the same way that radios work, transmitting information as light waves that are later decoded as sound waves. There are plenty of other sonifications you’ve probably heard, like the gravitational wave chirp or the sound of the Juno spacecraft crossing Jupiter’s magnetopause. Other artists have done some pretty rad things with physics data, too.
Jenkins makes his sonfications available to plenty of musicians but said that Hadero was the first one to play one of them on a guitar. He does’t change the sound much between the raw and the artist-ready files—usually he just cleans up some (but not all) of the clicks and pops and moves the whole thing into a frequency range the human ear can actually hear.
The sonic light curve begins at 5:02 in the song and continues to the end—Hadero didn’t change the file much either, just decreased the levels of some of the deep thumps that come from the eclipses. “This star has serious rhythm,” she told Gizmodo in an email.
As for the rest of the song, it’s got an Ethio-Jazz rhythm modified to fit into an American 4/4 beat pattern. It also has horns playing on a 5-note pentatonic scale, the basis of Ethiopian music, said Hadero. And it’s full of mind-expanding space lyrics, like “In me, stardust is living/ one billion years gone by/ so who is going to stop me when it’s my time to fly” and “Everything that we are was made in a supernova.”
“The cosmos are a part of you,” Hadero told Gizmodo. “And to understand that can make you walk taller in the world.”
Anyway, I guess Gizmodo is a music blog now. This song rocks. Meklit’s new album When the People Move, the Music Moves Too will be out on June 23 via Six Degrees Records.