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..."