SolarBeat

Joy of the Day 14/365: SolarBeat

In the past year or so, I've been reading a lot about astronomy. For reasons that will enter into some future essay, the collaboration between Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler grabbed me, first because it was an interesting story and later because I noticed their struggles mirrored a tension that I'd felt in my own life (although in very different circumstances). I find both the history and the hard science fun to read about.

When I read and write, music tends to run through my head. Sometimes this offers a certain insight into what I'm doing -- because either the lyrics capture an idea I should consider or the mood of the music is somehow relevant to the words in front of me -- but sometimes it is mere distraction. When I read about astronomy, I kept hearing a sort of repetitive tinkling of bells. For a while, I thought of that as meaningless mental flotsam and jetsam, a sound in the mere distraction category. But then I remembered the source.

SolarBeat is a project of a guy named Luke Twyman and his company White Vinyl Design. It uses the real orbital frequencies of the planet in our solar system to make the internet equivalent of a musical mobile. (See it here.) Planets moving around a sun make sounds like bells as they pass a line signifying a completed orbit; the result is a kind of slow pattern of bells that each sound in their own rhythm. A counter details how many orbits each planet has completed, which is an enlightening view of how much longer outer planets take to complete a full circuit compared to those closer to the sun.

SolarBeat first came into being -- and I first found it -- back in 2010, before I took much of an interest in reading about outer space. It has lingered in my head ever since, and tends to come back unbidden when I read about astronomy.

Most marvelous of all is how it changes when I think of, say, the Tychonic (geoheliocentric) model of the universe, which alleged that planets rotated around both the sun and the Earth. Thinking of that as a pattern of sound calls to mind something like the polyrhythmic drumming of the asafo, the local drums corps of the Ghanaian village where I once lived. Picturing movement in the musical style of SolarBeat also tends to let me mentally animate 15th-century diagrams I find recreated in books on Brahe and Kepler, making them fresh and engaging in a way no black ink on flat pages could do. 

I feel a special affinity for space because of my grandfather's role in NASA, but his administrative work didn't really bring to life the movement of planets themselves. SolarBeat did that. On his website, Luke Twyman says, "I'm probably most proud of [my work] getting shout outs from several departments over at NASA, including Hubble." He doesn't mention if any administrators' grandkids did the same -- but if not, well, cross that one off your list, Twyman, because SolarBeat is the Joy of the Day.