Capturing the Stars: With video and sound, CfA Fellow turns astronomical data into art
Sunday, September 9, 2012
News Feature

It started with an offhand remark, an unusual characterization for astronomers talking about stars: "They’re going off like popcorn."

The comment referred to the fact that stars are exploding all around us. Although exploding stars, or supernovae, are rare among any particular group of stars, the vastness of space ensures that at almost any given instant, a new supernova has detonated somewhere in the observable universe.

"They’re going off all the time, the universe is so enormous," said Alex Parker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Institute for Theory and Computation.

To Parker, a specialist in astronomical imaging, the idea of stars going off like popcorn planted the seed for a video incorporating not only images but also sound.

The result, "Supernova Sonata," was released on the Web about a year ago, and has been watched about 125,000 times. In it, Parker assigned sounds to supernovae and allowed viewers to see -- and hear -- the 241 detected over three-plus years by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

"Supernova Sonata" was the first of several astronomical videos Parker has created on his own time and posted on the Internet. The most recent, "Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates," provides a striking affirmation of the extrasolar planet-finding mission’s success. It has generated at least one request for adaptation from a planetarium in the United Kingdom, and has 100,000 views.