Footage taken during the Audible Universe 2 workshop:
Incredible images of astrophysical objects are used by professional astronomers for research and by the general public for outreach and educational purposes. However, astronomers and the general public alike are blind to nearly all astronomical phenomena without technological and computational aids to produce the images that we are now used to “seeing”.
For example, only by using giant telescopes can we detect exoplanets or distant galaxies. Furthermore, most physical processes in the Universe reveal themselves, not in visible light, but instead at other wavelengths invisible to humans, including: radio waves; X-rays; and gamma rays. Incredibly, 95% of the mass and energy that makes up our Universe is actually entirely “dark” because it does not emit radiation and is referred to as “dark matter” and “dark energy”. Despite the fact that we are all basically blind to the Universe we nearly always opt to represent the data with visuals.
Challenging the idea that we should use visualisations of astronomical data, there has been an emerging research interest in converting astronomical phenomena into sound. There are now several astronomers performing such “sonification” of astronomical data to make academic research, outreach and education accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired (BVI) or to assess if data sonification, with visualisations, can enable a deeper understanding of the underlying data. There is a growing interest in the research area of converting astronomical data to sound, mostly driven by enthusiastic astronomers.
However during the Lorentz Center workshop “Audible Universe” that took place in August 2021 (held online due to the pandemic) we started to bring together experts with different backgrounds, including astronomers interested in sonification; researchers in sonification; sound or music computing; sound design; sound perception; and educators. We achieved the goal of discussing and consolidating current attempts at sonification of astronomical data and set a common ground among different disciplines. Building on the success of that online workshop, we now aim at bringing together experts in person to reach a more comprehensive investigation of how astronomical data can be sonified to help all researchers in discovery and data exploration and, at the same time, to make astronomy more accessible to the BVI community.
We plan to achieve the following objectives:
(1) consolidate and follow-up new collaborations that started during the online workshop;
(2) design and plan future experiments to evaluate current and future sonification tools;
(3) plan a roadmap for the following years, discussing how astronomers, sound designers, psycho-acoustics researchers, and educators can collaborate to carry out these scientific experiments and to work towards an international standard framework for sonification of astronomical data that also meets international accessibility criteria.