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UW physicist turns Planck data into hi-fi sound of Big Bang

ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Close your eyes, press the play button and travel back 14 billion years in time.

That’s the sound of the Big Bang, in high fidelity.

“It sort of sounds like what an airplane sounds like flying over your house in the middle of the night,” says University of Washington physics professor John Cramer who recreated the sound using cosmic microwave data. “A very low frequency that sort of builds up them falls off again.”

What's creating that low-frequency sound is the universe expanding and stretching, says Cramer, adding the sound gets lower as the wavelengths stretch farther. In fact, the data produced such a low sound that Cramer had to boost the frequency 100 septimillion times—or 100 followed by 24 more zeroes—just so we could hear it.

“What was going on in the universe was vibrations that were way, way, way lower in range than what we could hear,” he said.

Cramer first got the idea for the project 10 years ago when a mother helping her son with a science project asked him if a sound recording of the Big Bang existed anywhere.

Cramer knew it didn’t, but also knew it could be recreated using cosmic microwave data. So he sat down “one Saturday morning, when I should’ve been doing something else,” and wrote a computer program that translates data collected by satellites into a sound file.

The data used for the project wasn’t complete, however; Cramer didn’t have access to high-frequency data until last month when the European Space Agency released the findings from the Planck spacecraft's recent mission. Using Planck’s sophisticated data, he was able to produce a fuller and richer sound file. 

Cramer has posted the high-fidelity sound online in various lengths. He warns pets may find it unsettling, as his own Shetland sheepdogs did.

“As soon as the sounds started coming out of my computer, two of the dogs came running into my office and ran around, barking like crazy,” he said.