Astrobiologist and author Lewis Dartnell finds that a stroll through the backstreets of Stoke Newington leads to a holiday on Mars.

Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell. Photo Credit: Rita Platts.

The hot summer’s weekend of June 19-20 saw the Guerilla Science team organize an event at Distance, an arts and music festival hosted by the Stoke Newington International Airport in East London. I worked closely with Louis Buckley to develop a walking tour through the backstreets of Stokey to illustrate the size of the universe.

Photo Credit: Rita Platts

We set off from the Airport, representing the Earth, and at set points on our walking tour, representing different celestial objects, we would pause to listen to a real recording of the sounds and emissions made by that object. Have a listen yourself here.

The streets of Stokey, mapped to the stars. Photo Credit: Rita Platts.

With each stop I would explain what was creating these other-wordly sound effects. An audio tour of the universe, if you will. Here are two of the places we visited: Jupiter

and the Crab Nebula.

There’s one big problem, however, with a walking audio tour of the universe: space is big. Really big. And so on with the Douglas Adams’ quote…

But the problem is very real if you’re trying to map a walk so that it takes roughly the same time to walk from the Earth to the Sun as from the Sun to the other stars in the Galaxy. Even if you scale it so that the distance to the Sun stretches only a few inches, then the walk to the next star would still last miles and miles.

The trick is to use not a linear scale, but a logarithmic scale.

You are probably familiar with log scales from measurements such as the Richter Scale for earthquakes, whereby each unit is a multiplication greater than the previous. A Richter Scale 2 earthquake is not twice as powerful as a Scale 1, but ten times more intense. So for our Space Walk from the Earth to the edge of the observable universe I calculated a log scale that nicely squashed everything to a gentle amble of just under 2 km.

Photo Credit: Rita Platts

With Louis dressed in his silvery spaceman suit we had no trouble piquing the curiosity of the crowd to come on the audio tour – nor as it turned out, the Stoke Newington residents.

Lewis Dartnell illuminating the celestial. Photo Credit: Rita Platts

The walks seemed to go very well, with the crowd tightly huddled around their MP3 players and iPhones to hear the bassy reverberations of the broiling surface of the Sun, or the eerie shrieks and whistles of the emissions from Jupiter or Saturn, or the feverishly fast radio pulses from the spinning cores of dead stars, called pulsars.

Photo Credit: Rita Platts

One really nice aspect of this event was that between the different stopping points an encouraging amount of discussion sparked up. We strolled down the Stokey backstreets chatting about holidays to Mars, how black holes are formed, and what is the most distant thing an unaided human eye can see.