(SOUNDBITE OF MICROWAVE RADIATION)
GUY RAZ, HOST:
So are you hearing this?
HONOR HARGER: Yep.
RAZ: So what is this?
HARGER: This is the sound of cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang 13.78 billion years ago.
RAZ: Wow. We're hearing the Big Bang right now?
HARGER: You're hearing what's left of the Big Bang. That's the closest that we can come to experiencing the beginning of the universe.
RAZ: This is Honor Harger. She's a sound artist. And a few years ago, Honor started to listen to space because while most of us could tell you what space looks like, not a lot of people could tell you what it sounds like. Here's how Honor explained it from the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HARGER: Now, this story doesn't start with vast telescopes or futuristic spacecraft, but a rather more humble technology - the telephone. It's 1876. It's in Boston. And this is Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with Thomas Watson on the invention of the telephone. A key part of their technical setup was a half-mile-long length of wire which was thrown across the rooftops of several houses in Boston. The line carried the telephone signals that would later make Bell a household name.
But like any long length of charged wire, it also inadvertently became an antenna. Thomas Watson spent hours listening to the strange crackles and hisses and chirps and whistles that his accidental antenna detected. So what were these strange noises? As he correctly guessed, some of these sounds were caused by activity on the surface of the sun. So whilst inventing the technology that would usher in the telecommunications revolution, Watson had discovered that the star at the center of our solar system emitted powerful radio waves. He had accidently been the first person to tune into them.
RAZ: You know, it's crazy because we think about space as a silent place. Like, we don't think of space as having anything to hear.
HARGER: Well, in a sense, that's accurate because the medium of space itself is a vacuum. And, you know, obviously sound can't travel in a vacuum. But it's the fact that radio waves can travel through the vacuum of space and then be detected using the same types of radio receivers and antennas that our listeners are using to detect our voices. That's where the magic is really happening here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HARGER: Because, you know, scaling up those antennas and changing the frequency of those receivers makes it possible for us to detect not just radio waves made by us here on Earth but celestial radio waves made by the sun or Jupiter or a pulsar or any other astrophysical phenomena.
RAZ: So - but what if you're just, like, out there in space, right? Like, what does that empty sound - like, that empty space - sound like?
HARGER: Well, the sound of space itself sounds a bit like an undifferentiated hissing noise.
RAZ: Just like a (hissing).
HARGER: Pretty much.
HARGER: Yeah. And it's not until you're actually, you know, listening to a particular object. So different objects sound like different things. Jupiter sounds like ocean waves breaking up on a beach if it's long waves of radiation.
(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)
HARGER: Pebbles being thrown onto a tin roof if it's short waves of radiation.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEBBLES CLATTERING)
HARGER: The sun sounds a little bit like the sea, kind of roaring. A pulsar, for instance, which a pulsating radio star, sounds like a drum beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM BEAT)
HARGER: The faster the pulsar is spinning, the faster the beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM BEAT)
HARGER: You become quite attuned to being able to detect what it is that you're listening to just by the sounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HARGER: It's through listening that we've come to uncover some of the universe's most important secrets - its scale, what it's made of and even how old it is. This is what the sun sounds like.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUN RADIO WAVES)
HARGER: This is the planet Jupiter.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANETARY RADIO WAVES)
HARGER: This is a highly condensed clump of neutral matter spinning in the distant universe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPINNING NEUTRAL MATTER)
RAZ: When you hear those sounds, what are they telling us about space?
HARGER: So one of the practices of turning a non-audible phenomena into sound is trying to work out if there's something that we can hear in the data that we can't see. And sometimes ears can be incredibly effective detectors of patterns in a way that perhaps our eyes - because we use them so much more - are not as effective at. So I suppose that's the scientific answer. And then the human or artistic answer is that there's something quite emotionally fulfilling about being able to connect with something as distant and therefore quite abstract as a star through the emotional mechanism of listening. These vastly, you know, kind of large astrophysical structures become a little bit more tangible to us, I think, if we can approach them through listening as opposed to just looking.
RAZ: Honor Harger is a sound artist and now the executive director of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. In a moment, listening with your whole body. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.