Mars is a pretty quiet place. No birds to sing, not even the sounds of trees swaying in the wind. The few noises that are produced by rockfalls or air movements wouldn’t carry well in the minimal atmosphere. Nevertheless, scientists have whimsically created the sounds of a Martian morning by converting a photograph of a sunrise on Mars taken by the Opportunity rover into tones, and the result is surprisingly musical and pleasant.
Any digital information can be turned into sound through a process known as data sonification. Dr Domenico Vicinanza of Anglia Ruskin University and Dr Genevieve Williams of the University of Exeter applied this to Opportunity’s photograph of the 5,000th sunrise since the craft landed on the Red Planet. Each pixel becomes a sound, with the loudness and pitch reflecting the brightness and color.
Images taken on Earth could get the same treatment, but many would produce an unholy racket, with clouds and vegetation producing something too complex to be aesthetically pleasing. On Mars, however, the dark skies create a quiet harmony that slowly builds as the step from pixel to pixel approaches the Sun.
The process is a sort of artificial synaesthesia, where people experience one form of sensory input as linked to another. This, however, reverses the most common form of synaesthesia where sounds, letters, or numbers are experienced as colors.
Williams and Vicinanza are debuting their composition at the NASA booth at the Supercomputing SC18 Conference in Dallas, Texas. Attendees of the conference will get to have the full Martian experience both through high-quality speakers and vibrational transducers, which will allow attendees to truly feel the sunrise in their bones.
For those not willing to go quite that far, the video below offers a taste.
“Image sonification is a really flexible technique to explore science and it can be used in several domains, from studying certain characteristics of planet surfaces and atmospheres, to analysing weather changes or detecting volcanic eruptions,” said Dr Vicinanza in a statement.
It seems great minds are thinking alike, with a forthcoming paper in the Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (preprint on arXiv) on the conversion of stars’ light curves into music. As their name suggests, variable stars change in brightness significantly over time. Some of these, known as Cepheid variable stars, have a period that directly relates to their intrinsic brightness, making the length of their cycle vitally important information in the quest to establish the distances to nearby galaxies.
Douglas Adams’ original Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency described a fruitless quest to turn the movements of nature into melodious sounds. It seems the answer lies elsewhere in the galaxy.