Category Archives: music

Wow! Check out The Planets Online

There’s a great new website about our solar system that will blow your socks off! The Planets Online introduces viewers to a broad range of subjects in a unique, innovative, and entertaining way. The site naturally interweaves information on science, engineering, music, visual design, and technology—it could be a showcase for STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).

Adrian Wyard

Adrian Wyard

The site is the creation of visual artist Adrian Wyard. Followers of Seattle Astronomy may recall that we wrote about Wyard’s show The Planets Live about three years ago (story here). The concept is that Wyard uses images of celestial objects to accompany and enhance classical music. He’s done it with Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Dvorák’s 9th Symphony.

The core of The Planets Online is a video of a performance of The Planets by the Auburn Symphony Orchestra directed by Anthony Spain and featuring the Seattle Pacific University Women’s Choir and Wyard’s visuals. This is no ordinary video, however. If you remember when we used to get our video on plastic disks, think of The Planets Online as a video loaded with special features. As the video plays, a sidebar describes the images and who created them, offers facts about the music, pulls up Wikipedia pages and other sources about the science, throws in tidbits of trivia, and more. You can switch any of these info streams on or off depending on your interests.

Here’s a little preview video of The Planets Online.

We expect you might spend a good deal of time with the site.

There are live performances of Wyard’s work coming up this spring in Florida, Virginia, and Texas. The last northwest live performances were back in April, May, and October last year. If you missed those, you can have a little fun—and learn a few things—with The Planets Online.


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Astro happenings every night this week

There’s plenty to do in Seattle this week for those interested in astronomy, as there is at least one event every evening through Saturday.

Physics week at Town Hall

Town Hall Seattle will welcome two authors to the city this week. Harvard particle physicist Lisa Randall will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2, about her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs? Randall draws a connection between the Milky Way and the dislodged comet that smashed into Earth 66 million years ago. She’ll describe the ins and outs of this idea, explain what historical galactic events have to say about the present, and, perhaps most importantly, instill a greater appreciation for the interconnectedness of the universe we live in. Tickets, $5, here.

Town Hall will feature more physics on Tuesday, Nov. 3, as journalist George Musser of Scientific American talks about his new book, Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time—and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). The title is a nod to Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics, and Musser will look at the universe, black holes, the Big Bang, wormholes, and other somewhat unknown areas of physics. In this month, which marks the centennial of the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, he will celebrate today’s best scientific thinking and help us understand it. Musser’s talk will begin at 7:30. Tickets are $5 here.

UW astro anniversary celebration continues



The University of Washington Alumni Association is helping to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the university’s Department of Astronomy with a series of four lectures titled The Big Bang and Beyond: Four Excursions to the Edges of Time and Space. The second in the series will be held Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in room 120 of Kane Hall on the UW campus in Seattle. UW professor Miguel Morales will give a talk titled “The End of the Beginning,” focusing on how scientists read the subtle patterns in the cosmic microwave background to infer what happened in the first few moments of our universe’s history.

All of the free tickets for this lecture, and for the others in the Big Bang and Beyond series, have been claimed. It may be possible to gain admission on a waiting list should there be no-shows. Check our previous post for a rundown of other anniversary events.

Spacefest comes to Museum of Flight

spacefestlogoThe Museum of Flight will host a three-day Spacefest beginning Thursday, Nov. 5 and running through Saturday the seventh. Highlights of the event include astronaut John Herrington leading a glider-building session during the museum’s free-admission evening on Thursday, discussions Friday about the rigors of human spaceflight, and a look Saturday at the challenges of a trip to Mars.

Visit the museum website for a full schedule of the three-day festival.


originsposterThe centerpiece of the UW astronomy anniversary celebration is a multimedia concert, Origins: Life and the Universe, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle. Eight Seattle composers have created original orchestral music that showcases the complexity and beauty of our universe. The symphonic concert will be accompanied by projected high-resolution movies created using some of the most spectacular imagery, videos and conceptual art from the Hubble Space Telescope and a variety of other sources. The live concert will feature Grammy-award winning conductor David Sabee and the renowned Northwest Sinfonia orchestra.

Check our previous previews of pieces of the concert, with composers Nan Avant and Glenna Burmer.

The concert is a benefit for scholarships in the UW Department of Astronomy and Astrobiology program. Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available through the Seattle Symphony website.

TAS and spectroscopy

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The night will feature a presentation about spectroscopy. In addition, club members will have telescopes on hand should weather conditions be favorable for observing the heavens.

Don’t forget to look up

Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and the Moon are holding a little dance during the mornings all week. Check them out high in the southeast before dawn. The Taurid meteor shower peaks on Nov. 5, but watch out for a few days before and after as well. EarthSky has a good article about watching the Taurids, and Astronomy magazine’s The Sky This Week has daily observing highlights.

The history of the universe in ten minutes

As communicators of science our job is often to take huge amounts of complicated information and condense it into something understandable. Scientist, composer, and author Glenna Burmer recently took on a monumental task: explain the 13.8 billion year history of the universe in a ten-minute movie.

Glenna Burmer

Glenna Burmer talked during a presentation at the Museum of Flight about her process for creating her movie “The Big Bang.” Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“There are some challenges being an amateur filmmaker and trying to condense this much information into a movie,” Burmer understated. She did it, though, and you will be able to see her work as part of the Origins: Life and the Universe multimedia concert that will be held Nov. 7 at Benaroya Hall. Burmer is one of eight composers whose work will be featured at the event. She and UW professor Matt McQuinn spoke at the Museum of Flight last Saturday to explain the Big Bang and preview Burmer’s film.

Burmer is a scientist; a molecular pathologist and expert in immunohistochemistry.

“As a passion, I have always loved astronomy,” she said in explaining her involvement in the project. Though a scientist, Burmer comes from a family of artists and musicians.

“Consequently, I’ve always wanted to try to synthesize science, art, and music, and this concert gives me the first-time opportunity to really do that,” she explained.

Among the challenges in doing a film about the Big Bang is that there’s no existing footage of the event, so creating visuals relied in part on particle animation technology. Burmer admits to being thrown off a bit by tensor calculus, membrane theory, and string theory, but she got enough understanding to help animators create a sequence demonstrating a Big Bang based on ekpyrotic theory. The animation shows two 3-D universes.

“They approach each other, they leak gravity, and they bud off our universe,” Burmer explained.


UW astronomy professor Matt McQuinn explained the evidence for the Big Bang during a talk Oct. 17 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Her film also uses pieces of many of the computer simulations McQuinn, a theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist, used in explaining the Big Bang. He started out with an account of the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the signature of the Big Bang. Our coverage of a recent Seattle lecture by Jim Peebles tells this tale as well.

McQuinn noted that the best evidence for a hot Big Bang is that there is way more helium in the universe than could have been created by fusion in stars. The explanation is that, soon after the Big Bang, hydrogen fused much more easily in the hot, dense new universe. Astronomers have built models based on the measurements of the radiation in the cosmic microwave background and how much helium such conditions would produce.

“The predictions from the hot Big Bang model just fall perfectly on the measurements,” of what is actually out there, McQuinn said. “This, coupled with the fact that we have seen the cosmic microwave background, makes it almost indisputable that there was a hot Big Bang. No respected scientist questions this picture any more.”

McQuinn explained that galaxies eventually formed because of fluctuations in the density of mass and energy. An as-yet undetected particle called the inflaton may be the cause.

originsposter“This particle seeded these density fluctuations,” McQuinn said. “The predictions of this model are in striking agreement with what we see, so people think that this is the answer for the source of energy fluctuation.”

“From studying the cosmic microwave background radiation, we’ve come to these profound conclusions,” McQuinn concluded. “We’re able to explain the universe down to planetary scales.”

The “Origins” concert is part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the UW. The concert will feature the work of eight composers and accompanying celestial photography. It is a benefit for the scholarship program at the University of Washington Astrobiology Program in the Department of Astronomy. Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available online or by calling the Benaroya Hall ticket office at 206-215-4747.

Science and art meet in planetary nebulae

The next time someone tells you that science and art don’t mix, point them to the work of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble images are the inspiration for a multimedia concert, “Origins: Life and the Universe,” coming up at 2 p.m. November 7 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Astronomer Bruce Balick and composer Nan Avant explained during a talk last week at the Museum of Flight how one segment of the concert was created.


Prof. Bruce Balick, in front of a slide depicting Galileo, talks about science and art at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Balick, professor emeritus in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington, noted that science is, to a great extent, the result of our unique human ability to recognize patterns.

“Science is observing the world around us and describing the pattern, typically with mathematical forumlas,” Balick said. “After that we puzzle over what these patterns might mean. We use the patterns as a means to gain insight into the way in which the natural world works.”

While Balick has spent his career studying planetary nebulae, he also loves the incredible images of those celestial objects that Hubble has returned to Earth.

“I want you to appreciate what I hope Nan has found in these pictures, namely glorious natural patterns that inspire music,” he said. “These objects are simply beautiful.”

Nan Avant

Composer Nan Avant gestures while talking about her creative process on “Bijoux.” Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Avant, a composer from Ballard, said the photos spoke to her.

“I was so inspired by what I’d seen with these brilliant colorful images,” she said. In addition, she was influenced by conversations with Balick about the Orion Nebula and the Carina Nebula, the two objects that are featured in her multimedia composition, “Bijoux.”

“There’s so much going on in the nebula I wanted to continue this into my concept of the music, so I created many themes or melodies to represent the nebula,” Avant explained.

Avant said her last year, working on the project, has been “astounding.”

“As a composer, I’ve learned about the nebula, the universe. I had conversations with a distinguished scientist of the nebula. I collaborated with a filmmaker,” she said. “And finally, I composed an orchestral work about the universe. I grew so much as an artist, a composer, and an orchestrator.”

The title of the piece, “Bijoux,” is French for “jewels.”

“When I was looking through these breathtaking, stunning images and the music was unfolding into rich melodies and textures, I wanted to find a word, just one word, that expressed the music and images all in one idea,” Avant said of the choice.

originsposter“Scientists, musicians, artists, all of them have so much in common,” Balick marveled. “We love pattern. We appreciate pattern. Pattern says something to us. It may be visceral, it may be scientific. It comes in the form of music, it comes in the form of art.”

The “Origins” concert is part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the UW. The concert will feature the work of eight composers and accompanying celestial photography. It is a benefit for the scholarship program at the University of Washington Astrobiology Program in the Department of Astronomy. Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available online or by calling the Benaroya Hall ticket office at 206-215-4747.

Another chance to preview one of the pieces in the concert is coming up at 2 p.m. next Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Museum of Flight. Professor Matt McQuinn of the UW Department of Astronomy will take a close look at how our universe was formed and how small fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background grow into galaxies with stars and planets. Glenna Burmer, who composed a piece entitled “The Big Bang,” will discuss her musical and visual interpretation of the 13.8-billion-year history of our universe, exploring the process that composers and filmmakers use to bridge science and art. The talk, titled “Origin of the Universe and Everything in It,” is free with museum admission.

Hadfield talks guitars and other space oddities

Chris Hadfield may not be quite the household name among astronauts that John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, or Buzz Aldrin are, but he tops them all in at least one category: Hadfield’s video version of the David Bowie tune “Space Oddity,” recorded on the International Space Station, has been viewed more than 19 million times on YouTube. That’s by far the most hits among his many made-from-space flicks and eclipses on-line hits on Moon-landing videos.

Hadfield made a stop in Seattle earlier this month for a talk before a large crowd at Town Hall Seattle, where he signed copies of his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.

Though YouTube didn’t exist during the Apollo era, Hadfield said he was nonetheless inspired by the space pioneers.

“I decided to be an astronaut when I was nine; that’s when Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon,” he said. This was especially challenging for a kid from Canada. “It wasn’t just hard, it was impossible. There was no Canadian astronaut program.”

He pursued the dream anyway, learning to fly airplanes as a teen, and picking up astronaut-type skills the best he could until, finally, the opportunity presented itself.

Hadfield at Town Hall Seattle

Astronaut Chris Hadfield spoke Nov. 12 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Hadfield didn’t talk much about the book during his Seattle event, mostly limiting prepared remarks to an account of what it’s like to be launched into space. He said the first nine minutes bring the majority of the risk on any mission.

“You have seven million pounds of thrust and you are going… somewhere!” he said. “It feels like something crashed into your spaceship. There’s this big pulse of energy through the whole ship and then a big rumbling vibration. You can’t hear it, but oh, you can feel it, like a piston in the small of your back that pushes harder and harder.”

He said that on his first space flight he experienced an unexpected injury by the time they reached orbit.

“About this time I noticed my face hurt; my cheeks were all cramped up and I realized that I’d been smiling so broadly,” Hadfield recalled.

“I laughed at myself to think that I didn’t know how much fun I was having. Part of me was going ‘OK check the pressures, check this, call out the distances, all the ranges, black zones, all the rest of it,’ and part of me was going ‘WHEEEEEE!'”

Hadfield said that playing guitar in space is an interesting experience because of weightlessness.

“When you fret with your hands, the whole guitar just takes off!” he said. “Eventually you learn how to stabilize it.”

In addition, he said that playing with a weightless arm throws you off.

“When you try to do something quick up and down the neck you miss,” Hadfield explained. “You have to re-learn how to fret properly.”

There’s a West Coast connection to Hadfield’s space musicianship. He has a special guitar made by Roscoe Wright of Wright Guitars in Eugene, Oregon.

“He makes this really weird guitar that is just the fret board,” Hadfield said. “The guitar pieces are actually like a coat hanger, so that it gives the shape of a guitar, it feels like a guitar against your body, but it folds up really tiny, a really clever design. I got him to cut the neck in half so it would fit into a shuttle locker. He built one special for me.”

It’s not the guitar used in the “Space Oddity” video, which is an ordinary acoustic instrument.

Hadfield also fielded questions about the past and the future of space exploration. He, like most astronauts I’ve heard speak, thinks that shutting down the space shuttle program was the right call, noting that shuttles flew for the better part of three decades.

“You probably don’t drive a 30 year old car to work every day, you sure don’t drive one to space every day,” Hadfield said.

“There’s only so much money in the NASA budget, and you can’t fly an expensive vehicle while building a new vehicle unless you get a big whack of money from somebody else, and there was no somebody else,” he explained. “I think we did it just right.”

“Everybody should celebrate the space shuttle,” he added. “It was the most capable vehicle we’ve ever built and it served us superbly. I was delighted to get a chance to fly it.”

As for the future, Hadfield feels the next logical step in humanity’s continuing drive to explore will be an international effort to return to the Moon.

“We need to learn how to go live there,” he said. “We will learn an awful lot by setting up permanent habitation on the Moon over the next–who knows? 30 years, couple generations. From there hopefully we’ll invent enough things that we can go even further.”

Hear and feel the Northern Lights Sunday in Seattle

We love it when science and art intersect, and so an event coming up tomorrow as part of Hollow Earth Radio‘s Magma Festival caught our attention. Attendees and Internet radio listeners will get to experience Space Weather Listening Booth, a sound installation representing the Northern Lights, created by Seattle composers Nat Evans and John Teske.

Evans said his inspiration for the piece came during a trip to present some of his music in Fairbanks. While there he observed the Aurora Borealis, which he called a “life-changing experience.”

Space Weather Listening Booth“It’s a different kind of light that felt like it was enveloping me,” Evans said. “It was really intense, so I wanted to try to do something with that.”

He had created several site- and time-specific works based on light in the past, and met Teske when both presented shows at an event last summer. They decided a collaboration might be just the thing.

“I wanted to capture the vastness of the Aurora Borealis experience that I had and also the intimacy of the night,” Evans recalled. “John’s ideas are very much in play with that and have a nice intersection with mine.”

“We were hoping to capture that intimacy but also the immersive sound,” Teske added.

Much of the composition is driven by scientific observations. Evans and Teske collected the actual geomagnetic data, solar wind data, and other information from the day Evans observed the Aurora and turned it into music.

“We chose some sounds that we felt would go well with one another and then moved those sounds and manipulated them along those data points,” Evans explained.

Teske took the shapes of the data curves and made sound waves out of them, which he said gives the composition “a nice scientific grounding.” Since the Earth turns, so does the music, rotating among the speakers that surround the listeners.

Teske said their prerecorded electronic track is joined by live musicians who have room to improvise. Thus listeners hear and feel the sounds of the phenomena that combine to create the Aurora Borealis.

“It was interesting to find that balance of what’s data driven, what’s pure music, and what mixture of those makes a good match,” Teske said.

Evans felt that striking the balance helped the composers give the piece a life of its own.

“The decision to use data and engage with it is a similar experience to giving yourself over to just sit and observe anything, like the Aurora or waiting for the Aurora or watching a sunset,” he said.

The first presentation of Space Weather Listening Booth was at the ONN/OF Festival on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in January. The performance space was little more than a walk-in closet, with room for four speakers, one musician, and a listener or two, who would come in for a minute or two. For the Magma Fest installation they’ve got a larger, gallery-size space that will accommodate four musicians and many more listeners, who will be able to take in the full 50-minute composition. Teske said listeners can understand the piece even if they only hear a short segment of it.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to do the whole presentation and see what that’s like,” he said.

Evans added that, while the festival atmosphere can be awesome, “it can also be like releasing a rhinoceros into a flower bed.”

“It will be nice to give space some space,” he quipped.

Both composers got started in music early. Evans was a percussionist in elementary school and wrote music in high school. He started college at Butler University as a performance major, but switched to composition. Teske was accepted to study physics at Cal Poly Tech, but decided music was his thing and majored in composition at the University of Washington. The two expect they will collaborate again.

The performance of Space Weather Listening Booth is scheduled for 8 p.m. Sunday, March 17 at Hollow Earth Radio, 2018A East Union Street in Seattle. There’s a suggested donation of $5–$15, cash only, at the door. It also will be streamed live on There will be a performance next Thursday, March 21, at a private residence in Portland. Contact the composers for more information.

Cosmic music lists

Our friend Jon Bearscove, the non-proprietor of the Galileo Astronomy Unclub, has a new post up highlighting the official GAU astronomy iTunes list. It’s a pretty eclectic list, with tunes from the likes of Sting, Billie Holiday, Puppetmastaz, Moby, Nine Inch Nails, and Jean-Pierre Garatoni, among others. I’d like to nominate one more tune for the list: “Sloop Jon B” in recognition of the listmaster!

We published our own Seattle Astronomy music list, along with our no astronomy list, last year. Oddly, our two lists don’t share a single track! The closest we come is “Moonlight in Vermont.” GAU has a version by Billie Holiday, while Seattle Astronomy went with a Ray Charles recording of the same. We do have a Holiday song on our list, though: “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” And while GAU has Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street”, Seattle Astronomy has “Walking on the Moon” by the Police. We have some differing tastes in music, it would appear!

It seems astronomy and music go hand in hand, or perhaps eyeball in ear. An article by Glenn Chaple in the June 2011 issue of Astronomy magazine prompted me to share my list, and we also linked the two interests with our rave review of the Astronomy Magazine Blues Band this summer and some follow-up posts with videos from their performance at the meeting of the Astronomical League.

What are your favorite astronomy tunes?