One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about working on TMT has been the opportunity to do educational outreach at local schools. For example, over the past few weeks I’ve been teaching astrobiology at an elementary school. So, I’m always on the lookout for interesting and novel education materials to help convey the excitement of astronomy to the next generation.
This week has seen the release of “Tour of the Solar System” by Audio Universe, which uses sound to complement visual imagery. As their website says, “Using senses in addition to sight, such as listening, can enable us to explore and appreciate more accurately features in astronomical data. Additionally, this avenue of multi-sensory research and communication is more accessible to those who are blind or vision impaired.”
The audio tour starts from the Very Large Telescope on Paranal in Chile—I vividly remember visiting this telescope when I was working on the ALMA observatory. The powerful experience of high-tech engineering amidst the overpowering silence of the Atacama Desert, just as each of the four observatories were opening up their dome to make the night’s observations, has always stayed with me.
In the audio tour, as the stars start to come out, brightest first, different notes (tones) can be heard representing the different colors of those stars. The tour visits objects including our own Sun and the planets in our Solar System, using a “Sonification Machine” to offer an interpretation of what the Sun and each planet might sound like. The narrators include Dr. Nicolas Bonne, who describes himself as a visually impaired astronomer. Dr. Bonne is also one of the authors of the article “Audio Universe Tour of the Solar System: Using Sound to make the Universe More Accessible” which describes their motivation and approach in more detail.
I listened to the tour through headphones, with the stereo sound shifting from left to right to convey the orbital motion of the planets. I closed my eyes to appreciate all of this more fully, and it was a fun, interesting and educational experience: it truly gave me a more nuanced sense of the dynamics of our Solar System.
I’d like to offer my congratulations to the Audio Universe partnership for creating these innovative outreach materials, and I’m looking forward to incorporating these into my own teaching.
“Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System” is presented by Newcastle University, the UK Science and Facilities Council, and the Royal Astronomical Society. Support has also been provided by the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth. The team and partners are listed here.