Astronomy Outreach’s “Signal To Noise” Brings More Arts To Astro

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I’d like an order of science with extra art, please

Bwog Senior Staff Writer Ross Chapman went to the latest event put on by Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach. Here are his thoughts on Signal to Noise.

Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach is one of the University’s strongest programs for engaging with students and the public through free and accessible lectures and shows. Their events run a gamut of topics with an emphasis on low barriers to entry. On Friday night, the arm of the Astronomy Department teamed up with the Amateur Astronomers Society of Voorhees and the Wallach Art Gallery to put on Signal to Noise, an “interdisciplinary salon centering on the topic of sounds of the solar system.” The event was the second major arts-and-astronomy presentation on campus in less than a month, coming on the heels of Blue Shift’s Arts & Astro.

The night began in Pupin 301 with a lecture by Andrea Derdzinski, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in computational astrophysics. Her 20-minute lecture, titled Waves from Space, gave a brief history of the signals humans have received from space. Historically, light was the only messenger from the cosmos, and eyes our only receivers. As scientists came to better understand the electromagnetic spectrum, they developed telescopes able to detect different wavelengths of EM radiation. The combination of many types of light into one image marked the 20th century era of “multi-wavelength astronomy.”

The current century uses gravitational waves for research. These waves can be considered the “sounds” of spacetime; while we cannot actually hear them, gravitational waves have properties similar to sound. In fact, since some gravitational waves have frequencies similar to audible sound, they can be converted into sounds for our listening pleasure. Using light and gravitational waves leads to “multi-messenger astrophysics,” a practice which has only just begun.

After playing some samples of gravitational waves converted to sound, Derdzinski turned the floor over to Ariana van Gelder, an experimental composer and theoretical physicist. Van Gelder performed twenty minutes of improvisational “live vocal loops.” She used her mixing board, two “loops,” and two pedals to record single notes of her voice and then immediately manipulate them. By using reverbs, delays, and octave effects, van Gelder quickly formed a celestial, atmospheric piece of sound art. As more notes entered the mix, the piece became more stormy due to the close proximity of the notes and a clipping effect from the lecture room’s speakers. The work was meditative, not deviating too far from its first tonal center, but it was dynamic enough to not drag on. Van Gelder said that studying physics changed the way she perceived the world and gave her more appreciation for the physics of sounds.

A quick Q&A with Derdzinski and van Gelder marked the end of the event’s tenure in 301. For the rest of the evening, the audience was invited up to the 14th floor of Pupin and the Astronomy Department Library. Even though the night was too cloudy for stargazing, tours of the roof were still offered. The 14th floor events had a few pieces of art on display, and also offered the Signal to Noise zine produced by the Amateur Astronomers Society of Voorhees. Signal to Noise is a pun on the signal-to-noise ratio, a way of measuring the strength of a signal against its interference.

Polishing off the night’s performance schedule was a multi-genre performance by New York artist ray ferreira in the library. She used English and Spanish speech, poetry, and dance “to create a banj criticality: that turnup w/the grls; that swerve past white cishet patriarcy,” per the event’s program. The works by ferreira and van Gelder were both modern, but their differences were night and day. The combination of works in one event highlighted that different media and genres of art, like different disciplines of science, can accomplish entirely different but connected goals.

Image via Wallach Art Gallery

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