I recently posted a track on SoundCloud that included the sonification of LIGO’s gravitational wave data. A student asked me what that meant. Since today is Albert Einstein’s birthday, what better time to try to formulate an answer?
First, some context: 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes collided. Each was about thirty times as heavy as the sun. The collision took a tenth of a second and released fifty times more energy than all the stars in the observable universe. Here’s how it looked:
Of course, black holes being black, you can’t see them; the graphic shows the way that they would warp the appearance of stars behind them.
Most of us agree that the Beatles made great music. But “real” musicians like to argue that the Beatles were not necessarily themselves great. They certainly weren’t exceptionally great guitarists, or drummers, or keyboard players, or even singers. They were pretty good at those things, and had flashes of greatness, but you could walk into any music school and quickly find yourself dozens of more proficient instrumentalists. At this point, a Beatles fan might come back and say, well, the Beatles were great songwriters, which is different from being a great musician. The Beatles did indeed write brilliant songs (though they wrote their share of clunkers too.) Is musicianship coextensive with the ability to play or sing or write? I’m going to say that it isn’t.
We’re right to regard the Beatles as great, but not because of their performances, or even their songwriting. The Beatles are great because of their ability to create studio recordings. Their albums from Revolver onwards are hugely greater than the sum of the material, arrangements, and performances. Those late albums are masterpieces of recording, editing, mixing, and effects, of hyperrealist timbral and spatial manipulation, and of surrealist tape editing.
Sound On Sound ran this highly detailed account of mixing the inescapable summer jam of 2012. It’s the most thorough explanation of how a contemporary pop song gets mixed that I’ve ever read.
I’m interested in this article not so much for the specifics of the gear and the plugins, but rather just out of sheer awe at the complexity and nuance of the track’s soundscape. My cadre of pop-oriented music academics likes to say that the creativity in recordings lies not in their melodies and the chords necessarily, but in their timbre and space. “Call Me Maybe” is an excellent case in point. Its melody and chords are fun, but not exactly groundbreaking. Yet the track leaps out of the speakers at you, demanding your attention, managing both to pound you with sonic force and intrigue you with quiet detail. Whether you want your attention grabbed in this way is a matter of taste. I happen to love the song, but even if it isn’t your cup of tea, the craft behind it bears some thinking about.
Gravity is the warping of spacetime by mass or energy. A mass like the Earth warps spacetime so that the shortest path, the “path of least resistance,” for inertial movement is towards the Earth’s center.
Using instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, it’s possible to literally see the warping of spacetime by very massive objects like galaxies and huge conglomerations of dark matter. When you’re looking at a very distant object and there’s a large mass along your line of site, it warps spacetime to produce a visual effect known as gravitational lensing. Here’s a schematic diagram showing how it works.
In Annie Hall, young Woody Allen explains to his doctor that he won’t do his homework because the universe is expanding, so what’s the point? His mother exasperatedly tells him, “You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”
I post this because I’ve been reading Coming Of Age In The Milky Way by Tim Ferris, as good a summary of the state of cosmology between two covers as a person could ask for. Thinking about the horrifying enormousness and ancientness of the universe might have depressed Woody Allen, but it has a paradoxically calming effect on me. Reading books like Ferris’ is my favorite form of meditation.
Life appeared very early in the planet’s history, earlier than you might have naively guessed. But then for billions of years, it existed only as simple single cells floating in the ocean or sitting in cracks in the rocks. Big complex creatures visible to the naked eye didn’t appear until the planet was two-thirds of the way to its present age. The first insects didn’t appear until nine-tenths of the way to the present, and humans didn’t show up until ninety-nine percent of the way.
Our creation stories start with the assumption that we’re the most important thing in the world, the reason for everything else’s being. The story that science tells relegates us to the periphery. Life has mostly been smaller and simpler than us. I think it’s important to recognize that we might very easily wipe ourselves out, and the microbes will barely have noticed we were even here.
The sun was on my mind today anyway, it being so nice and cloudless outside. But days like today also cause me anxiety. I’m a fair-haired sunburn-prone type, and my dad died from skin cancer, a combination of Scandinavian genes and long hours as a young guy on a ladder helping Grandpa paint houses, plus many more hours on boats and beaches with no sunblock. I stick to the shade, wear hats and generally play it very safe, but still, I feel some dread about the amount of radiation I’m getting from the great thermonuclear reactor in the sky.
My dread does have an upside. It’s fueled a lot of fascination. The sun is a bottomless source of interest if you’re a science geek like me. Continue reading →