February 22, 2010

Brainwave: On The Sound of Planets

The room was packed. There was a grand piano on the side of the stage, which I thought Philip Glass was going to play while Greg Laughlin would sing for an opening number. But no, both men went straight to their seats and started the discussion right away.

This is Brainwave, one of a series of events at the Rubin Museum in New York City that features Artists and Scientists together in an engaging conversation. This time it was the Laughlin/Glass duo. An Astrophysicist and a Composer discussing the Music of the Spheres. 

Laughlin started with an overview about how just a few years ago, it was mere speculation that other worlds orbited other Suns. And now we have known hundreds of exoplanets at our disposal to analyze. He then proceeded to view our solar system on the Systemic Console, a software he wrote on java.

The Systemic Console is somewhat a simulator, with GUI controls that allows you to play around with planetary properties such as mass, period, eccentricity, and so on . It can then plot charts and graphs, and generate wav files, or "sonify" the planets.

Then he played the sonification of how the inner planets in our solar system sounded like. It was "bland", as Laughlin described it--to which Glass disagreed, saying "no" in a manner as if waking up from a sleepy trance. From then on, Glass periodically injected deep thoughts into the conversation--often catching Laughlin offguard while in the middle of his hand gestures explaining planetary orbits. On the first occasion, Glass raised the question of a 'Cosmic Ear'. He asks, "Is there someone out there listening to the sound of these planets?" The discussion that ensues sometimes ends up with Glass discovering the answer to his own questions, often ending in wonder and amazement. For example, he reached the conclusion that "this exercise makes it personal" as he tried to reflect upon our ability to generate sounds from planetary orbits and to actually listen to them.

For a moment I thought I heard Laughlin say that there is no music of the spheres. We simply use technology to generate audible sounds that we can relate to. But to which Glass remarks that this sound is the incident that makes him interested.

Laughlin mentions that a few seconds of the clips spans a thousand years of a planetary system's evolution. Glass follows up that the resonances that Laughlin describes is actually what musicians often think about.
Then they talked about how they admired Kepler, who tried to make sense of planetary motions. Briefly touching upon the life of the man to whom a planet-hunting telescope is named after.

As I listened, I realized that Glass is curiously funny. Quite a surprise from what I thought at the beginning that he might be grumpy. While Laughlin is soft-spoken and mellow. Together they make a perfect balance.

Laughlin played sounds of other varieties of exoplanets with different parameters. Some of them actually sounded good, like an intro from an ambient song. Then he plotted the orbital evolution and stability of our own solar system. But this time changing the mass of any planet in a what-if scenario alters the stability of the other planets as well. The sound generated by the oscillating system sounded very eerie, like psychotic ghosts singing a comical requiem.

The question and answer portion ensued, with the audience dealing some good questions, eliciting good answers in turn. The discussion ended in a deep and mystical way, as both men reflected upon the great unknown and the mystery that surrounds us in this universe. And that is fascinating, Glass says "That's where Art and Science meets..."

February 19, 2010

Exogazing: A New Music Genre that FITS!

In a fit of joy and delight, I've just learned that the band called A New Silent Corporation (ANSC) has picked up on "exogazing music". This is what they posted,

"Apparently there's a new name for our music genre, it's called exogazing. Like watching out to other worlds. Which kind of fits."

This is the first time that a musical artist has expressed approval for the name of their new genre. And I'm very happy to hear it from this exogazing band. What is even more amazing to me is the last word of their quoted statement, "fits". Yes, it truly fits! Because aside from the semantic meaning of that word, there is also a technical match that truly puts their words in perfect context! It amuses me because "FITS" is a kind of file format used by planet-hunters to transfer lightcurve data. FITS has "an extraordinarily effective form of compression(!)" as Greg Laughlin says from his blog at oklo.org. In a broader context, FITS is actually the standard data format used in Astronomy.

As everyone knows, the etymology of exogazing comes from an exogazer's musical preference when gazing at the stars. “Exo” means “out”. Thus, to Exogaze simply means to “gaze out”. The term originated from a hobby of exoplanet enthusiasts called "Exogazing" which simply means “looking up in the starry night sky and pondering other worlds.” Exogaze music is the type of music recommended while stargazing and exogazing, and thinking of otherworldy stuff. Shoegazing (another genre) is looking down, while Exogazing is looking up.

The absence of lyrics prevents exogazers from being distracted by words. The melodic and atmospheric quality of exogazing music complements the mysterious expanse of space. And the almost-depressing and uplifting aura matches that lonely feeling that one gets when staring out into the night sky--where the feeling of insignificance, and appreciation of a fleeting chance at life, is entwined in an inexplicable mood.

In a nutshell, exogazing music is marked by these general characteristics: it has no lyrics, instrumental, and moody. It intersects with the post-rock genre and involves psychedelic plus ambient overtones. The songs are mostly a mixture of electronic and guitar-driven compositions, and typically uses computers and gadgets to make. Some examples of artists that create exogazing songs are: Caspian, Moonlit Sailor, Pelican, Lymbyc Systym, The American Dollar, Mooncake, Metavari, Glowworm and so on. See more from this list of artists that belong to this new genre here.

It's worth saying that discovery and exploration also occurs even in the field of music. And I am very excited about the unexpected musical discovery that has sprouted from the exploration of this new field of exoplanet science.

February 17, 2010

Spaceships and Exoplanets

I was admiring all the spaceships in io9's compilation of awesome space artworks when i noticed a pattern: almost all of them have planets!
"But of course! Spaceships are built so that one can go from planet to planet, so that's why planets are present in the background of many pictures of spaceships!" One can say that, but has anyone ever really noticed that fact? And so what? What does it mean? Well, it made me realize that Spaceships and Exoplanets go together!
And maybe there is some kind of golden rule in creating artworks of spaceships--perhaps there must be a planet's crescent somewhere in the canvas to be a masterpiece.
Or maybe i'm just exaggerating. And yes, maybe i'm just excited. After all, it will be on spaceships that our descendants will hop on to go to colonize other worlds.

February 12, 2010

Humanity’s First Interstellar Flight

The idea of mankind going to the stars might be jumpstarted by the discovery of the first earth-like planet. It's a bold new era.

Brainwave: Music of Exoplanets

It's not often that Art and Science converges on something that integrates exoplanets with music. Thus, blogging about the Art and Science of New Worlds renders me captive to an event where I will get a chance to be inspired by Greg Laughlin who created a software that generates music from planetary orbits. And to boot, I will learn more about Philip Glass, the renowned composer of Kepler and Galileo Galilei who will interpret the sound of the musica universalis.

Laughlin said he and Glass will explore commonalities between music and orbital dynamics. The pairing of the two was sparked in part by Laughlin’s articles on his blog oklo.org that delve into ways to "sonify" planetary movements. He developed software to map planetary systems as audible waveforms. He said he became intrigued by the realization that planetary systems can be used as a type of nonlinear digital synthesizer and can provide an enormous palette of sound -- sounds never before heard.

Thus, the Laughlin/Glass Brainwave session appealed to me especially that ive been exploring a genre of music tagged as exogazing music--similar in the kind of mood that shoegazing elicits, but instead of looking down, one looks up at the stars.
Exogaze music is ideally the kind of music to accompany a stargazer while pondering exoplanetary thoughts.

With the synthesis of exoplanets and music, hearing about the Brainwave event is truly music to my ears, so I almost instantly secured a ticket at the Rubin Museum to witness this awesome synthesis of Art and Science. I would soon expect astronomy inclined musicians to insert clips and samples generated from exoplanet orbits into their songs to literally create exogazing music!

How Do We Listen to the Music of the Spheres?
Composer Philip Glass + astronomer Greg Laughlin
Rubin Museum of Art · 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY
Sunday February 21, 6:00 p.m.

February 9, 2010

Worlds In The Sky: A Live Exoplanet Transit Event

To my knowledge, this has never been done before: An actual exoplanet transit, or it's real-time lightcurve will be broadcast live over the internet on Feb. 13, 2010.

The project is called "Worlds of the Sky" which is an International Project for the public observation of an Extrasolar Planet Transit, specifically of XO-3 b. The name of this event, "Worlds of the Sky" was taken from a famous book by Camille Flammarion, the man behind the "Flammarion Woodcut", a recognizable picture that you see often in Astronomy books and magazines.

The event will be broadcast live on the website http://www.crabnebula.it, or at http://www.livestream.com/eantv on February 13, from 7pm onwards. The webcast will allow users around the world to watch the evolution of the light curve of the star XO-3 as the planet passes in front of it, monitored by the 1.34-metre Ruths Telescope of the Brera Observatory in Merate, Italy. The real-time data will be accompanied by comments of astronomers in English, Italian and Chinese.

Please take note that the observatory that is observing XO-3b's transit is located in Italy, so please match your particular timezones. New Yorkers must tune in to the event at around 1pm Eastern Time (EST). Let's hope that the clouds don't get in the way of the telescope for this event because i really would like to see an actual exoplanet transit as it happens, and to see it along with other people simultaneously. And let's hope the servers in Europe allow visits from other parts of the world.

Make sure you plan to view this event with your beloved, because this occurs on the eve of Valentine's Day, which makes the transit of XO-3b even more appropriate! XOXO!

Neill Blomkamp's Thoughts and Ideas

For Neill Blomkamp to give this kind of TEDx talk is simply amazing. This clip is highly-recommended for anyone who is interested in the same stuff that this blog is enthusiastic about. A fascinating talk has been elicited from a simple answer of "no" to a question of whether the "prawns" from his District 9 movie is an accurate representation of aliens. And with this kind of ideas from a director, I'll make it a point to watch all his movies. We need more of this kind of filmmaker!

February 8, 2010

Do Androids Dream of Exoplanets?

"The ship turned back a sixth of the way to Proxima. Otherwise Rachael would never have seen earth.." Thus that line inspired me to write a post about "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", the futuristic novel by the legendary author Philip K. Dick (PKD).

Probably known as the story which inspired the cult scifi movie Bladerunner, I also enjoyed it's rendition as a graphic novel. Although the art behind the comics version did not fully capture the kind of world that PKD painted, I honestly did not expect "Do Androids Dream" to be as rich as it is, touching upon a lot of topics that might become apparent in the near future.

First, is the opening introduction to the issue of animal extinction, and how Deckard--the pet-loving bounty-hunter (specializing in retiring "Andys") is yearning to own a real sheep, a real horse or any genuine animal, for that matter. As I write this, thousands of species are actually disappearing from our planet. Perhaps our children may someday own pets that are genetically-modified or fully synthetic versions of extinct species.

Second is the apparent evolution of robots into Androids that are so sophisticated that they are difficult to discern from real human beings. A special kind of modern psychological Turing Test is needed, which is requires a Voight-Kampff machine to detect whether a subject is an android or a human.

And the third one, which is of particular interest to this blog is the mention of Colony Worlds. In the future, we will employ hordes of androids, called "replicants"--to do all the drudgery for us, in building off-world colonies on inhospitable worlds like Mars. Already in the beginning stages of planetary exploration as we use rudimentary robots like the Spirit rover whom we already ascribe with anthropomorphic qualities, and who already moves our emotions in ways we could never explain.

Google perhaps even named their "Android" phones after one of the earlier versions of the replicants called the Nexus-6 (which gives us a hint of what this "evil" company may be up to in the near future). Corporations may utilize the charm of anthropomorphized machines to create profitable products that appeal to the masses and thus secure funding from "gadget-loving" consumers. Now that Human Space Flight is wide open for commercial entrepreneurship, it signals a glimpse of what lies ahead. Planetary exploration and colonization may in fact be undertaken by private firms.

And since humans are so fragile and expensive to transport and land on other planets, could there be good reasons to believe that the future exoplanetary exploration will be done in whole or in part, by artificially intelligent robots and androids operating under the funding or technology of commercial firms? One can never tell, unless of course when they're already staring us right in the face.

But if i was an Andy i will never go back to Earth, especially with that kind of treatment depicted in the novel. I'd rather run away far unto outer planets than be extinguished by narrow-minded humans on this forsaken world.

"Spirit" from XKCD
"Do Androids Dream" Official Page
Commercial Spaceflight

February 4, 2010

On Resolving Exoplanet Nicknames

While i was building the "Exoplanet Seeker", i discovered a wonderful capability of Freebase and i think i've found an extended use for it's auto-suggest feature.

If you start typing the nicknames of some exoplanets such as "Bellerophon" or "Osiris" or "Methuselah", you would notice that it suggests the correct exoplanet and shows it's official name. For example, if you started typing "Bellerophon" in the empty field it would start showing 51 Pegasi b, the historic exoplanet co-discovered by Michel Mayor. Or typing in "Methuselah" would bring up PSR B1620-26 b--the oldest known exoplanet believed to be 12.7 billion years old.

Immediately i appreciated this capability to bring up the official name by just typing the nickname, and we owe it to Freebase. It actually would prove to be a nice platform upon which to implement the proposal of Wladimir Lyra to give each exoplanet a nickname--in which case the "Exoplanet Seeker" would function as a nickname-resolver. A practical use would be this: If you can't remember what the cryptic official name of that odd exoplanet was, but you remember it's nickname (which often is the case), just go to The Exoplanet Seeker to help you find out the official name!

All this would only work if we saved the nickname in the 'alias' of the exoplanet data within Freebase. Somehow, behind the scenes the system looks up the aliases of objects within freebase and gets resolved by the auto-suggestion capability.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg--many more useful apps can be developed if enough exoplanet data is entered into Freebase. I hope some folks join me in filling up more data about exoplanets on freebase so many other developers can create more mash-ups utilizing this impressive platform.