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Exploring the sounds of space

Published: 
28 February 2008

Professor Tim Leighton, of the University of Southampton’s Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR), will talk about the importance of microphones recording the astonishing sounds of other planets on BBC Radio 4’s Leading Edge programme tonight (28 February) at 9pm.

The interview forms part of Radio 4’s coverage of the Brighton Science Festival, where (on the same evening) Tim will be giving a talk entitled ‘Bach to the Future’.

Tim has simulated the sounds we might expect to hear if we went to a concert on Titan, Venus or Mars to demonstrate there is enough understanding of “alien” sounds to justify an increased use of microphones on space probes.

This is, firstly, because if enough is known about the acoustic characteristics of extraterrestrial environments, engineers can design appropriate microphones for other worlds; and secondly, because with sufficient understanding scientists can interpret sounds in order to tell us much about the environment on other planets, such as seismic activity, wind, precipitation and instrument operation.

To make this demonstration, Tim recorded himself playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on a church organ and, with the help of Andi Petculescu of University of Louisiana – Lafayette in the USA, transformed these sounds (and the voices of Tim’s children) to show how they would appear on other worlds.

Tim says, ‘The atmosphere on Venus shifts the pitch up dramatically (from D Minor to F Minor), making the children sound like Smurfs, while the atmospheres of Mars and Titan transpose the music down (to keys of G-sharp minor and F-sharp minor, respectively), transforming my ten-year old daughter’s voice to that of a large adult.

‘However, while the sound on Titan carries even better than it does on Earth, on Mars the atmosphere absorbs the sound so much that almost nothing is audible when you are only 20 metres from the organ. The calculations indicate what the instrument would sound like at various locations in open-‘air’ concert halls on the various planets. One thing’s for sure - you wouldn’t sell many tickets on Mars!’

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