We were at the National Maritime Museum on June 13th as part of their free late night exhibition, Visions of the Universe! We took the audience on a Sonic Tour of the Universe and asked the question: what does space sound like? 

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Our new addition Shaun Higgins revised the tour – first hosted at the Secret Garden Party in 2008, and since trotted out at the Stoke Newington International Airport and the Roundhouse in Camden. He tells us about his experience probing the cosmos with his ears…

On the astral scale, life on our blue planet is rare & remote. We are such a precious little world and, to our knowledge, incomparable to any other celestial body in Space. Amongst the seemingly infinite number of planets that dot the Universe, there are many clone Saturns, a multitude of mirror Mercuries and countless cousins of mighty Jupiter; but Earth stands alone, unique in its own solar system … galaxy … cluster … and throughout the far reaches of the Cosmos.

Life – as we know it – is an extraordinary thing. Yet, since the beginning of time, a very different type of life (and death) has been melodramatically playing-out its cycle upon the grandest of scales, orchestrated by the power of gravity. Following the Big Bang, the collapse & compression of subatomic particles into gases led to the eventual formation of vast galaxies, themselves birthing star-systems from the debris of their own creation. Galaxies have since been drifting & merging to violently clash & cluster into super-galaxies, generating further spatial matter for the forging of new astral bodies. Then, as the largest of stars age, die & supernova with the depletion of their nuclear fuel, their collapse can give rise to neutron stars or possibly even stellar black holes – their gravitation pulling galaxies ever-closer to one another, absorbing their matter and annihilating the very fabric of the Universe.

This genealogy is itself written in the stars, evidence of which that reaches us in the form of long-travelled sounds: low-frequency radio-waves that, once modulated, can then be humanly heard. To be stood in the quiet dark of the Visions Gallery at the National Maritime Museum, surrounded by breathtaking images of Space from the Royal Observatory as these ancient sounds flooded from the handset into my ears, was ominous, majestic & awe-inspiring. From the oscillations of our Sun to the thud of a distant pulsar, they were as alien as they were old, suggestive of colossal cosmic processes that had occurred already millions of years ago.

However, the overriding quality of each recording was their utterly unforgiving nature. They were noisy, harsh and disharmonious, generally without any sense of balance, symmetry or pattern. Essentially, they were void of any of the keys which conventionally give meaning to any form of representation. Unlike staring at some baleful image of Venus or Neptune, there was no immediate sense of beauty or truth. Yet, these cruel, unforgiving sounds intrigued my mind, leaving me still searching for the hidden meaning to be extracted from their chaos. Greg Smye-Rumsby, Royal Astronomer and our guide, painted his astral tale with a fiery gusto that unfolded some of the mystery behind each sound, delighting us with his delight in that what we do know only further confirms the incredibly harsh reality of existence on the cosmic level. Left to wonder at the drama of all this death & hidden beauty, I recognised that most of these were things that will never necessarily be explained or understood.

Yet, I was left with the realisation that life on Earth, albeit seemingly unique and the product of many flukes, has its equal place & meaning within this grander scheme. That, as each tiny, tantalising revelation about Space enables us to better understand ourselves, so we will better interpret the intrigue of the Universe.