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02/24/2013 01:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2013

Understanding the Sound of Space

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

At the outset of my space interest, an aspect I first wanted to explore was that of extraterrestrial intelligence, for quite a few reasons. I in fact tried to get the planetary society's scholarship when I showed a motivation based on the objectives of the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Perhaps, if I had gotten that opportunity and proceeded to working at SETI, I might have been able to better predict -- using state-of-the-art scientific methods -- the future possibilities of being able to 'hear' (directly) from such intelligence, if ever they are somewhere in the vast space.

Extraterrestrial Intelligence Lurks Somewhere in the Universe

I believe there are other 'beings' outside our planet, somewhere in our Solar System and more remotely, in our extensive Milky Way galaxy and possibly, somewhere lurking in groups in the universe. I think a major impediment may be the 'inability' for us to understand whatever communication we might be receiving from each other, and a major way we can communicate is to be able to hear the 'sound' they make and vice versa.

Jill Tarter, the Bernard Oliver Chair for SETI Institute, did buttress Honor Harger's TED point, much earlier though, that there's sound in space and it's not just audible to the human ears. Tarter said, "When SETI 'listens' to the cosmos, the institute is actually receiving electromagnetic radiation. And then, just the way your radio does, that energy can be used to make audible sound."

In space, sound could be generated in a number of ways, according to Timothy Leighton and Andi Petculescu in a research publication, these include through acoustical perturbations involved in the generation of signals, through a source with 'acoustical footprint,' or through perturbation in non-acoustic signals e.g. radio waves. To this effect, a few missions have carried microphones: Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan and Venera expeditions to Venus are a couple examples.

'In Science, Sound is Under Used'

In answering my question on the place of "sound" in exploring space, Yuki Takahashi, an explorer who has been on several scientific expeditions to the Antarctica, thinks that "in science, 'sound' is under-used." He says, "Since the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in 1964, especially in the last decade or so, many experiments like Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP) at South Pole has been trying to 'listen' for a clue of the very beginning of the Big Bang itself -- inflation." The scientific results tend to be presented in texts and pictures. Supporting Harger's talk, Takahashi thinks there's a great value in presenting results in a totally different dimension -- sound. "Maps of CMB anisotropy can be converted to sound as a telescope sweeps across the sky to give the audience a better appreciation of the fluctuations."

Nowadays humans are producing all kinds of sounds that we normally don't directly hear -- all kinds of radio waves from our mobile phones, wireless Internet routers, Bluetooth, TV stations, radio stations, satellite TVs, in addition two-way communications in all frequency ranges. According to Takahashi, "All this is not only potentially affecting humans and other species in ways we don't yet know, but from outer space, this makes Earth a very 'noisy' planet. Partly because of this, there's a completely unexplored frequency range in radio astronomy, and it happens to be just above the human audible frequency range - the 'very low frequency.'" Cosmologist Takahashi proposed that there's a "possibility to explore this completely unknown part of listening to the unknowns of the universe from the Moon."

Can We Decipher the Meaning of the Sound from Space?

The question for the case of "hearing" extraterrestrial intelligence is could we decipher the meaning of such sounds from space? I would think every civilization has its own 'language,' like ethnic groups do, which is understanding whatever sound the beings in such civilization or ethnic group make. It is therefore very unlikely extraterrestrial intelligence will sound with a language we understand, at least at the first instance. Hence, there is a distinct difference in sound making and in understanding the meaning of the sound made. Perhaps, the logical challenge to affirming the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence is not whether a sound is made in space or not, but rather, "understanding" the meaning of whatever sounds that is made. For instance, to know what might be it that the Sun 'means' with its rushing wind-like sound; what Jupiter and Io interaction is 'saying' by their "popcorn popping" sound; are the Saturn rings 'giving' the NASA probe, Cassini any useful information during a flyby in 2004 with its "hailstorm"-like sound? Does the energy-packed pulsar's sound 'gives' any revelations to the human civilization? Could it be that the sound from a planetary body is a collective yearning of extraterrestrial intelligence living on such a body, and would it mean that we have to isolate each 'component' sound from its totality to effectively 'understand' what an extraterrestrial being is saying?

All these questions may lead to an all-encompassing one: Do we have to start to 'study and understand' the different sounds recorded from space through acoustic or non-acoustic means? Would it mean understanding the sounds from space also means we have harmonized (upgraded) our intelligence with the extraterrestrial beings, who are the ones possibly making the sounds recorded from space.

Listening to my maternal grandmother talked with guests, she could just cough in the middle of such discussions and I'd have known exactly the meaning of such "sound" made, I did not have to check with an eye contact with her. I may not be able to correctly decipher such sound coming from a distant relative with whom I had not been listening to in the past. This shows the power of continuous listening to particular sound, which may amount to studying and understanding the sound for its exact meaning. Sound from space, which you may not hear in a vacuum space, may therefore be studied for proper understanding for what it's been communicated to us from such bodies in a vast vacuum.

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