Friday, October 17, 2003

Key of life: A galactic song

By Ray Cooklis
The Cincinnati Enquirer

'Weekend memos' give our editorial writers a chance to express their own opinions, comment on topics they have been writing about, or take a lighter approach. The opinions in 'Memos' do not always follow the Enquirer's editorial positions.
When I was in freshman music theory class competing against the kids with perfect pitch, I used a simple trick: listening to the fluorescent lights overhead. The 60-cycle hum, roughly equivalent to the note B, became a reference point.

The real lesson was: Music is all around us. You just have to listen. You can find music just about anywhere - except on the Billboard Top 100 charts these days.

"Anywhere" now includes the far reaches of the cosmos. Scientists using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Associated Press reported last week, have discovered that a black hole 250 million light-years away is humming a B-flat. The mammoth black hole that holds together the Perseus galaxy cluster generates sound waves that cause ripples in the cluster's X-ray patterns. They pack an incredible amount of energy.

"We've known that a black hole can give off energy as light and heat and now we are seeing a third way - sound," said Bruce Margon of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

This particular Johnny-One-Note has been bleating out its B-flat for about 3 billion years.

Many readers file these reports of arcane scientific discoveries in the "So what?" bin. The same day, AP reported that NASA scientists surmise the universe is shaped like a soccer ball. (Chicagoans, however, now believe it's shaped like the baseball that Cubs fan didn't interfere with.)

But the musical black hole is not just an astronomical oddity. B-flat could be the key to existence. The force of these sound waves, scientists say, could help solve the mystery of why gases in galaxy clusters remain so hot, which could help explain how the universe is developing.

AP noted that the black hole's song is "not within the hearing range of humans," which is a cosmic understatement. This B-flat is 57 octaves below middle C on the piano. Frequencies double or halve as you go up or down an octave, so 57 octaves is a huge leap. Middle C is 261 cycles per second. The black hole's B-flat amounts to one cycle every 10 million years.

That's soooooo loooooow that not even Mini-Me could belt it out in those tacky bank commercials.

Perhaps some eternal being with keen ears, located far outside our universal soccer ball, hears a glorious B-flat major chord. Talk about your music of the spheres.

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