X-ray to Sound: A Fortuitous Accident

In the spring of 2011, Wanda L. Diaz Merced spent time at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, doing research for her doctoral dissertation at Glasgow University, Scotland. Wanda, who is blind, has been interested in sonification as a data analysis tool: how sonification might help scientists, even those who can see, detect patterns in large amounts of seemingly random astrophysical data. She used sonified x-ray data from EX Hydrae that have been collected by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

One day Gerhard Sonnert gave Wanda some advice on her research and, on the way out of her office, he noticed a ream of sheets on which sonified x-ray data were printed out in musical notation. Being a bass player, he immediately recognized that the data showed a particular Afro-Cuban rhythm called clave. It occurred to him that, in addition to being a scientific tool, sonification might have an artistic application. Gerhard asked his cousin Volkmar Studtrucker, a musician and composer, to write songs from the EX Hydrae material. Volkmar created nine musical pieces, in a variety of musical styles, which they played and recorded in a trio (Volkmar Studtrucker, piano; Gerhard Sonnert, bass; and Hans-Peter Albrecht, drums).

» A screenshot from X-Sonify, a sonification tool developed by NASA

A screenshot from a X-Sonify sonification software

» Listen to an example of sonified x-ray data