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Toronto astrophysicist creates music from the cosmos

Astrophysicist Matt Russo poses for a photograph at the University of Toronto's portable dome theatre/planetarium in Toronto, on Jan. 24, 2018.


A Canadian astrophysicist who used the orbital patterns of seven newly discovered planets to create music will be bringing his work to the public in a Toronto show that will also allow those with visual impairments to experience the wonders of the universe.

Matt Russo, a planetarium operator at Toronto's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, said his work takes the rhythm of planets orbiting and combines them with other notes to create music based on cosmic activity.

Mr. Russo's work combining astronomy and music began in earnest last year, after scientists discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a dwarf star called Trappist-1. The system, about 40 light-years away, is believed to be in the right zone to harbour liquid water to sustain life. Mr. Russo was one of the researchers who created a musical simulation of the system's orbital dynamics.

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"What people noticed was that there were these special patterns in [the planets'] orbits, so their orbits were simple multiples of each other, for instance," Mr. Russo said.

"Since I was a musician and an astrophysicist, I realized that those simple patterns were the basis of musical rhythm and musical harmony. So, it was fairly straight forward to put it through a numerical simulation, kind of turn the crank and hear the music this planetary system was creating."

Mr. Russo's work with Dan Tamayo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto's Centre for Planetary Sciences, showed that the same properties that makes Trappist-1 musical are what keeps its planets' synchronized and, thus, their orbits stable.

Mr. Russo created a video that uses musical notes to illustrate the orbits of the planets and also adds drum beats to mark when the planets pass each other.

"Almost as soon as I released my first musical version of Trappist-1, I started hearing from people who were blind or visually impaired, just kind of thanking me for giving them a way to experience astronomy in a new way," Mr. Russo said. "So I realized the potential for converting things in space into music and sound for reaching out to blind and visually impaired communities."

Mr. Russo's new show, Our Musical Universe, debuts Friday at the University of Toronto Planetarium and showcases that work and other sounds for twinkling stars and Jupiter's orbiting moons.

Robyn Rennie, an Orillia, Ont.-based artist who became partially blind 13 years ago, got a sneak peek of the show last month shortly after her daughter called the planetarium to ask about its programming for people with low vision.

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"We used to live in the country where there were no lights at all … so the night sky was a huge part of my life," Ms. Rennie said. "I used to be able to look through the window when I was in bed and see Orion."

She said her and her family were "buzzing" after the show.

"Matt really wants to reach people who otherwise wouldn't be able experience the universe like everybody else," Ms. Rennie said.

Mr. Russo said the idea of pulling music out of astronomy is nothing new – it goes back more than 2,000 years ago with the ancient Greek thinker Pythagoras. But the musician and astrophysicist said his involvement in both fields remained separate until the Trappist-1 discovery.

"I did the physics during the day and the music at night, and they never really crossed paths," he said "I knew there was some connection, it was kind of obvious, but I never explored it. Since I did, it's opened all kinds of doors for me and hopefully other people to share in astronomy."

The Canadian Space Agency’s head of space exploration is looking at how the CSA could contribute to a planned mini space station that would orbit the moon. Gilles Leclerc says Canadian robotics could play a key role on the Deep Space Gateway. The Canadian Press
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