CONTACT: GARY GALLUZZO
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0009; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: March 2, 2001
UI space physicist's sounds of space inspire work of
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- In a case of art imitating science,
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has commissioned
a musical composition influenced by the sounds of space gathered by a University
of Iowa space physicist.
In particular, NASA has commissioned a work
for string quartet based upon the sounds of space collected on various spacecraft
over the last 35 years by internationally known researcher Donald Gurnett.
Plans call for the piece to be written by renowned minimalist composer Terry
Riley of California and premiered by the world famous Kronos Quartet at the
University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium in the fall of 2002.
When concert-goers finally settle into their seats,
they may hear something resembling an extraterrestrial "spring," for although
a human being floating through space would hear nothing but silence, space
can be a noisy place for a radio equipped with sensitive antennas.
For one thing, "chorus emissions," or rising tones
similar to the sound of chirping birds, result from the solar wind of electrically
charged particles flowing outward from the sun and colliding with Jupiter's
ionosphere, or trapped layer of charged particles. Another sound is the "whistler,"
a rapidly descending tone caused by lightning discharges. Scientists have
detected chorus and whistlers at Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
According to Bert Ulrich, curator of NASA's Art Program
in Washington, D.C., the idea of commissioning a work of art based upon Gurnett's
space sounds was a natural for NASA. "We wanted to get a piece of music commissioned,
and we were really interested in using captured sounds in space. NASA's Jet
Propulsion Lab directed us to Dr. Gurnett," he says. "For performers, Kronos
was at the top of the list."
Ulrich says that although few people realize it, NASA
has long maintained an art collection consisting of photographs, paintings
and other media by such artists as Andy Warhol and Annie Liebowitz that add
an intensely personal dimension to some of the most advanced scientific discoveries
For Gurnett, the interest shown by NASA's Art Program
is an honor that adds to an already distinguished career. A member of the
National Academy of Sciences, he is a veteran of more than 25 major spacecraft
projects, including the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flights to the outer planets,
the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Cassini mission to Saturn. Many of
his space sounds were recorded as he made the first observations of plasma
waves and low-frequency radio emissions in the magnetospheres of Jupiter,
Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and discovered lightning in the atmospheres of
Jupiter and Neptune.
Recently, Gurnett failed to detect lightning at Venus
in a search employing the Cassini spacecraft, scheduled to begin a four-year
exploration of Saturn, its rings, atmosphere and moons on July 1, 2004. Under
a $9.6 million NASA contract, Gurnett and an international team of some18
co-investigators will use the craft's Radio and Plasma Wave Science Instrument
to measure Saturn's powerful radio emissions, as well as its lightning discharges.
Although it is impossible to predict all of the wonders Cassini will provide
scientists, one thing is certain: Donald Gurnett will once again cup an ear
toward space and add to his "greatest hits" collection, featuring the sounds