Photography lesson

Lesson of the day: “Listen to the strange sounds of a singing black hole”

Featured article: “Hear the strange sounds of a singing black hole” by Denis Overbye

Have you ever wondered what the universe looks like? Can a black hole emit sound if nothing, not even light, can escape?

“As part of an effort to ‘sonify’ the cosmos,” writes science journalist Dennis Overbye, “researchers have converted pressure waves from a black hole into a… something audible.”

In this lesson, you will hear and experience that “something” and think about how these strange and enchanting sounds could change our understanding of the universe.

According to NASA:

A black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so hard that even light can’t get out. Gravity is so strong because matter has been compressed into a tiny space. It can happen when a star is dying…

Stellar black holes form when the center of a very large star falls on itself or collapses. When this happens, it causes a supernova. A supernova is a star that explodes and propels part of the star into space.

Based on this definition, what do you think a black hole might look like? Scary? Melodious? Cacophonous?

Take a few minutes to brainstorm and write down your answer.

Then listen to the “sonified” sounds of Perseus’ black hole at the top of this lesson, recently released by NASA. Next, answer in writing or through discussion with a partner the following questions:

  • What is your reaction to sounds? What do they make you think and feel?

  • How would you describe the sounds, if you had to put them into words?

  • What does audio recording make you wonder? What questions do you have about those weird sounds, black holes or the cosmos?

  • What story do these sounds tell us about black holes and the universe? Write a title to capture this idea.

Read featured articlethen answer the following questions:

1. How did astronomers sonicate Perseus’ black hole? Explain how researchers captured and converted sounds from a cluster of galaxies 250 million light-years from Earth into a recording audible to the human ear?

2. How does Mr. Overbye describe the sounds of the black hole? How does this compare to your description of the warm-up activity?

3. Why is NASA sonifying the cosmos? What are the objectives of this ongoing project?

4. What is a black hole, according to the article? Name three things you learned about these massive, mysterious entities.

5. What did you find most fascinating, surprising, provocative or memorable in the article? How do sonified sounds affect or change the way you think about and understand the cosmos? What can the “singing” black hole in a distant cluster of galaxies tell us about the universe?

Option 1: Learn more about black holes.

To cap off the recent black hole week, in addition to sonic sounds from Perseus’ black hole, astronomers have released the first direct images of the “gentle giant” Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. How many black holes are there in the universe? Will the Earth ever be swallowed up by one? What’s inside one of these mysterious entities? And what if you were to be sucked into it?

To answer these questions and learn more, scroll through the Times black hole topic page or read one of the articles below:

After you have conducted your new research, answer the following questions in writing or through discussion with a partner or small group:

  • What is a new and interesting fact about black holes that you have learned?

  • How did your article extend or challenge what you already knew about black holes or the universe?

  • What questions do you still have on the subject?

Option 2: Listen to more sounds from the universe.

The remnants of a supernova called Cassiopeia A. The Crab Nebula. The Large Magellanic Cloud. Curious to know what they look like? Choose one or more of the dozens of sonified videos on NASA’s Chandra X-ray Center website. Then respond in writing or through discussion with a partner or small group:

  • What new things have you discovered and heard in these recordings?

  • What do these sonified sounds tell us about the cosmos?

  • What other aspects of the universe would you like to hear sonified in the future and why?

Option 3: Create something with the sounds of a black hole.

Mr. Overbye finishes his track, “Eat your hearts out, Pink Floyd”, a reference to the famous psychedelic and other band of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Write a song – lyrics, beats, audio loops or an entire composition – inspired or incorporating Perseus’ black hole music and song.

How do you do this? We’re not entirely sure… Our minds have been blown by the first audio recordings of a black hole and we think it’s only fitting to create something with or inspired by these ethereal and touching sounds.

Be creative! Get off the beaten track. Go where the sounds take you!

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