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B flat and the cosmos

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5375.  Fri Jan 30, 2004 11:03 pm Reply with quote

A friend (actually, Bradford from the other forum) sent me this article from the New York Times in an email today, and I thought there must be a question in it somewhere.

Reverberations: The Speculative Case for the Cosmic B Flat

January 30, 2004

Who knew? All those philosophers and scientists and
theoreticians and composers who believed in the ancient
notion of a Music of the Spheres were onto something. There
is such a music, and it's the note of B flat.

Or so scientists told us a few months ago when they
announced that the Perseus galaxy cluster, 250 million
light years from our little planet, was emitting that note,
or a series of those notes, which "appear as pressure waves
roiling and spreading as a result of outbursts from a
supermassive black hole," in the words of Dennis Overbye, a
science reporter for The New York Times.

The notes have a period of oscillation of 10 million years,
which makes them "the lowest note in the universe." So said
Dr. Andrew Fabian, an X-ray astronomer at Cambridge
University in England and the leader of the team that
discovered the note.

Most of the commentary since has been about the
implications of this discovery for the study of black holes
and hence of the physical properties of the universe. My
interest is, to put it mildly, less scientifically informed
and more aesthetically speculative.

These B flats may be the oldest and the longest notes in
the universe, but just how universal are they? My eye was
caught by another recent article in The Times, this one
about a mysterious low hum that bedevils some people, a
kind of basso variant of tinnitus, which is a high pitch
likewise heard in the ears of sufferers. Are those sounds,
I wondered, also in B flat, suggesting an even more cosmic
implication for this once-humble pitch?

Courtesy of Mindy Sink, who wrote the article, I entered
into e-mail correspondence with Dr. James Kelly of the
University of New Mexico, who undertook studies of hum
sufferers in Taos. Dr. Kelly first clarified for me the
difference between frequency and pitch. "Frequency is a
physical measure," he wrote. "Pitch is what you perceive."
Since the black-hole B flat is 57 octaves lower than middle
C, it cannot be heard, thus only questionably qualifying as
a pitch.

As for the hum, Dr. Kelly reported that it was close to 66
hertz, two octaves below middle C. But he suggested that
other patients heard hums as low as the lowest E on a
piano. No specific correspondence with B flat, but one can
always hope.

Back to the macro picture, the black hole B flat. If that
frequency (or pitch) is now the acoustical bedrock of the
universe, perhaps our entire tuning system, centered on
middle C, needs revision. The Western harmonic system
involves keys with increasing numbers of sharps and flats
exfoliating out from middle C, or from C major, all white
keys on the piano. Now, perhaps, we have to exfoliate from
B flat. Maybe this is as big a shift in human thinking as
that from a flat-earth-centered universe to the solar
system. Or maybe not.

As a digression, I thought of the California composer Terry
Riley. Mr. Riley, always something of a cosmic mystic, won
his first fame in 1964 with his composition "In C," which
has been endlessly recorded and played, in part because
it's so beautiful and in part because it's so ingenious: a
series of simple melodic figures that any group of any kind
of instrumentalists may play according to certain simple
rules, setting up a dappled tapestry of sound.

Mr. Riley's most recent piece attests to his fascination
with the cosmos. It's called "Sun Rings," and although
lavishly praised on the West Coast (the Kronos Quartet
performs it), it hasn't yet made it to our benighted
Eastern outback. "Sun Rings" is based on "space sounds"
recorded by Dr. Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa. One
wonders idly if B flat plays any special role. To judge
from "In C," Mr. Riley is a C man.

According to the music encyclopedias, the Internet and
Jamie James's chatty book "Music of the Spheres: Music,
Science and the Natural Order of the Universe," thinkers
and artists have been less interested in what might be
designated a universal fundamental tone as in the relations
between the tones: scales and modes and keys.

Tables ascribing emotional characteristics to keys have
poured out over the centuries, back to the ancient Greeks.
The most complete compendium of these descriptions was
compiled by Dr. Rita Steblin in a book published by the
University of Rochester Press and titled "A History of Key
Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries,"
although she ranges far earlier and later than that. Check
it out for $95 plus shipping on

The descriptions were always highly subjective, but those
in Dr. Steblin's book for B flat major (let's try to keep
this reasonably simple, avoiding B flat minor) generally
call it a happy key. "Magnificent and joyful," as per one
early French source. "Noble," thought another Frenchman.
"Condescending greatness mixed with venerable seriousness,"
said a late-18th-century German. "Cheerful love, clear
conscience, hope, aspirations for a better world," wrote
another. "Tender, soft, sweet, love, charm, grace,"
according to an Italian.

If we listen to these sages, a B flat universe is not such
a bad place to be. And if we buy into August Gathy, a
Frenchman who wrote in 1835, the key relates to "noble
womanliness," too. Maybe there's something to Erda or Gaia,
after all. Check out, a site devoted to
"music for freethinking pagans, humanists, psychedelics,
visionaries, wiccans, mystics." Perhaps Mr. Riley already

Before we reluctantly leave the concept of keys, here is a
highly selective list of well-known compositions in B flat
major; make of them what you will: Beethoven's
"Hammerklavier" Piano Sonata and Symphony No. 4, Brahms's
Piano Concerto No. 2, Haydn's Symphonies Nos. 98 and 102,
Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Schubert's Symphony No. 5,
Schumann's Symphony No. 1.

But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves, besides
managing to annoy any serious acoustician or physicist or
musical theorist. The universe has not yet been detected as
emitting music in any key or mode. It is just steadily (and
very slowly) singing the note of B flat, over and over.
What song did the Sirens sing? What note? What key? We
await further word from our intrepid scientists, ears
cocked to the cosmos.

5376.  Fri Jan 30, 2004 11:06 pm Reply with quote

Q - What key is the Music of the Spheres played in?

A - B flat.

Q - What do Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn and Prokoviev have in common with God?

A - They all wrote in the key of B flat.

5381.  Sat Jan 31, 2004 8:50 am Reply with quote

There might be something here which would link back to the "what colour is the universe?" question in series 1. But: i) the article seems to says that this B flat is coming from one particular black hole, not from the universe as a whole, and particularly not from the Spheres (ie the planets) and ii) it's one note, not a key.

So we'd need to noodle with this one a bit, I think.

5385.  Sat Jan 31, 2004 12:50 pm Reply with quote

This is a more detailed and more astronomically based article:

B-flat Black Hole
The Chandra X-ray Observatory discovers sound waves from a supermassive black hole in the Perseus galaxy cluster. by Vanessa Thomas

Who knew black holes could sing? Well, "bellow" might be a better term. The tune sounded by a supermassive black hole 250 million light-years away is actually a steady bass note like that of a cosmic fog horn warning surrounding material of the dangers of coming too close.

After observing the Perseus galaxy cluster for 53 hours in August 2002, the Chandra X-ray Observatory revealed ripples in the hot gas that fills the cluster. These ripples appear to be sound waves that would register as a B flat if we could hear the deep tone.

The team that discovered the waves determined their frequency by calculating the speed of sound in that environment and measuring the distance between wave crests. The frequency is about one cycle (or wave) per 9.5 million years or so corresponding to a B-flat note about 57 octaves below "middle C" on a piano.

It's the deepest note ever detected and the first sound waves identified from a black hole.

"We have observed the prodigious amounts of light and heat created by black holes, now we have detected the sound," said team leader Andrew Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy in England.

The ripples extend hundreds of thousands of light-years from the supermassive black hole at the center of Perseus A (a.k.a. NGC 1275), the dominant member of the galaxy cluster. Fabian's group suspects they are created when two 50,000-light-year-wide cavities, excavated by jets from the black hole, push against the surrounding gas. These cavities also appear in Chandra's observations.

The sound waves could explain why the x-ray-emitting gas in the Perseus cluster has remained hot, rather than cooling off as astronomers would expect. When sound waves move through the gas, they're eventually absorbed by and transfer their energy to the gas. To provide the energy necessary to keep the gas heated, the sound must have been continuous for roughly 2.5 billion years.

Fabian and his colleagues targeted the Perseus cluster with Chandra because it's the brightest galaxy cluster in x rays. However, other galaxy clusters have cavities and stubbornly hot gas, so Chandra may find similar waves elsewhere.


A question that could come out of this is

What key does a cosmic fog horn sound in?

5394.  Sat Jan 31, 2004 1:24 pm Reply with quote

For some reason, the Germans refer to B-flat as "B" and to B-natural as "H" (this is how Bach was able to make his surname the subject of the last fugue in The Art of Fugue: B (flat); A (natural); C (natural); H (B-natural)). And of course he died before he completed it.

"H" is also the symbol for Hydrogen. Hmmm.

Perhaps JSB had accidentally stumbled across a great cosmic truth and this is why he had to be silenced by the same "doctor" as fixed Handel ...

Con Spirito. You see, there's always a link.

5404.  Sat Jan 31, 2004 3:20 pm Reply with quote

I rather liked the combination of the universe sounding in B flat with the descriptions of the key given in the first story I linked to above:

The descriptions were always highly subjective, but those
in Dr. Steblin's book for B flat major (let's try to keep
this reasonably simple, avoiding B flat minor) generally
call it a happy key. "Magnificent and joyful," as per one
early French source. "Noble," thought another Frenchman.
"Condescending greatness mixed with venerable seriousness,"
said a late-18th-century German. "Cheerful love, clear
conscience, hope, aspirations for a better world," wrote
another. "Tender, soft, sweet, love, charm, grace,"
according to an Italian.

I mean, if you were God, wouldn't you want the universe to be magnificent and joyful?

Sophie J
6286.  Tue Mar 02, 2004 9:48 am Reply with quote

Some cosmos-related stuff, although completely devoid of B-flat i'm afraid.

From today's Times:

The theory that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a huge asteroid that struck Mexico 65 million years ago has been called into question by research. Fresh analysis or rock cores drilled from the Chicxulub crater, in the Yucatan peninsula, suggests that it predates the extinction of the dinosaurs by 300,000 years.

The dinosaurs' extinction marked the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Tertiary one (the K-T boundary). This K-T boundary is marked geologically on the Chicxulub crater as a certain layer of clay containing iridium (commonly found in asteroids). Also marked on the crater is the 'impact breccia' - a layer of rock formed when the asteroid hit (below the K-T boundary).

The problem arose when researchers found fossilised microbes from the end of the Cretaceous period ABOVE the asteroid impact layer but BELOW the K-T boundary. This implies that the Cretaceous period, and with it the dinosaurs, actually survived the impact that caused Chicxulub. What is more, the microbes were found within a layer of limestone that would have taken hundreds of thousands of years to lay down, implying that the dinosaurs survived for a very long time after the impact.

6316.  Thu Mar 04, 2004 6:31 am Reply with quote

Oh now that belongs in the General Ignorance thread, surely?


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