April 9, 2018
Space jam comes to Seneca
Astrophysicist translates planetary system into music
Matt Russo was in love with two things in high school: guitar and physics. So when he studied jazz guitar as an undergrad at the University of Toronto, he took physics courses on the side. When he pursued his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in astrophysics at the same university after finishing his music degree, he moonlighted with his indie pop band.
While it was always “tough and stressful” to pick one or the other, thanks to the discovery of a new planetary system last year, that’s a decision the Seneca professor no longer has to make.
“TRAPPIST-1 got everybody excited. We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Russo, who teaches Planets, Stars and Galaxies at Newnham Campus. “I knew it was going to be special before I saw it.”
By that, Russo means the rhythm and harmony of the seven Earth-size planets that orbit a red dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. The planets are locked like neighbours in what’s called orbital resonance, which has repeating patterns like music.
Working with a fellow astrophysicist at the University of Toronto, it took Russo just a couple of hours to do the math and translate the TRAPPIST-1 data into musical notes. The process involved accelerating the actual speed of the planets by millions or billions of times until it’s fast enough for the human ear to hear.
The result was “a beautiful, inspiring chord in a major key,” Russo said.
From there, they brought in one of Russo’s longtime bandmates and created a musical simulation of the system’s orbital dynamics. Their work quickly garnered international attention and was featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC Radio 6, and CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.
Following the success of TRAPPIST-1, Russo founded SYSTEM Sounds to create more music based on cosmic activity. Earlier this year, his sound-based planetarium show, Our Musical Universe, took people on an audio and visual tour of the cosmos at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, where he is a planetarium operator.
“It gave me the power to communicate astronomy through music and to reach individuals who are blind or visually impaired,” he said. “It was a chance for them to experience the cosmos. They loved it.”
And recently, after Russo converted the inner solar system into music, he was surprised to discover that the terrestrial planets sound like they are playing Radiohead’s True Love Waits.
“We ran the planets through the same code that we used to hear the music of TRAPPIST-1 and out popped the opening notes to True Love Waits, in the same key and tempo,” he said. “The harmony is there and the asteroid belt produced a deep drone sound like a bass instrument.”
As much as possible, Russo said he regularly features the sounds of space in his class at Seneca as a way to connect astronomy to something his students are familiar with. He has also been working with Maia Nenkova, an astronomy professor at Seneca, on developing a new course called Music of the Spheres, featuring the rhythm and harmony of the cosmos. The course, to be the first of its kind, will allow students to create their own music using astronomical data.
“I love teaching, whether it’s teaching musical patterns using astronomy or vice-versa,” Russo said. “Seneca has allowed me to pursue this interest and focus on what’s interesting to the students. I might be teaching them how to convert the night sky into music while teaching them about the colours of the stars — red, yellow or blue.”
Looking back, Russo said he’s thankful to have fallen in love with both guitar and physics.
“I knew I wouldn’t be the best PhD student, but I couldn’t let the music go. That was the sacrifice I had to make,” he said. “I got lucky when they discovered the TRAPPIST-1 system at the right time. It all worked out in the end.”