I Hear the Universe Singing

I remember seeing the original Star Wars when it came out in theaters in 1977 with my girlfriend and her younger sister. It felt a bit awkward watching what I thought of as a kids’ movie, but it had generated a tremendous amount of buzz and had all the bona fides you could hope for: the latest in special effects, a mythical space narrative, avant-garde directing, and Bay Area panache (not to mention funding).

Not only did I end up liking it, but I didn’t have to hide my feelings the way I did whenever Rocky came up in conversation, which we had seen a few months earlier. After all, nobody wants to be thought of as low brow. To tell the truth, I loved Sylvester Stallone’s personal story of success even more than his movie. I may have been a little envious.

Still, Star Wars wasn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I felt obliged to offer a critique, mainly because that’s where I was in 1977, wide lapels and all. Back then, I imagined myself so sophisticated that I went to a friend’s bachelor party wearing a turtleneck sweater and smoking a pipe. Even the stripper commented–prophetically, as it turns out– on the “college professor,” but that’s another story.

“You know,” I told my girlfriend’s sister in the lobby afterward, “they shouldn’t have put all those sound effects in during the battle scenes. There’s no air in space and so sound waves have nothing to travel on. You wouldn’t have heard anything at all. Adding sound is incorrect.”

I didn’t have my pipe at the time, but I must have sounded technical and terribly insightful to a twelve-year-old who had just sat mesmerized by Luke Skywalker and company for two hours. I don’t know what my girlfriend thought. She could have rolled her eyes when I wasn’t looking, although she was generally kinder than that.

Now, all these years later, I’m rolling my eyes. You may have seen lately on social media that NASA has released an audio recording of a black hole in the Perseus galaxy cluster, which is just a few galaxies over from our own. I say “just” as if you go down two streets and make a left at the light, but we’re actually talking about 250 million light years away.

What do we call the release of pressure over hot gas?

Perseus was a demi-god in Greek mythology who slayed the monster Medusa, who had been in the habit of turning people into stone. He does this with the help of the god Hermes (i.e., Obi-Wan), who gives him a sword (i.e., light saber) and a pair of winged sandals (i.e., spaceship). Then he rescues Andromeda, a beautiful maiden chained to a rock (i.e., Princess Leah) who is about to be devoured by a sea monster (i.e., Jabba the Hut).

The thing about Star Wars is that despite its foray into a kind of New Age, Buddhist animism, it still relies on the underlying archetypes of Greek poetry and myth. And Andromeda is a neighboring galaxy to us, just one street over.

In basic terms, the physics behind the phenomenon of black holes making sounds is this. A black hole is infinitely dense and, as a result, emits waves of pressure. These waves pass through the galaxy cluster’s hot gasses. As they pass, they create a sound that NASA has been able to record.

I would describe the sound as eerily similar to the musical score of the 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet. The black hole music follows Walter Pidgeon around every time he enters or leaves a scene (see Plight of the Krell). It also reminds me of whales in the Pacific mating. I remember reading somewhere that Bis the sound the universe makes. Maybe these are all connected.

Conceivably, this could be the sound of the universe singing à la Walt Whitman but, really, I have to ask. What do we call the release of pressure over hot gas? Anybody? I may have new material for my act (see My Farting Peanut Butter Trick). Just sayin.

Image credits: feature by John Paul Summers; umbrella man by Kamesh Vedula; orange gases from “Black Hole” by Andrei Avantgardian (Jan. 18, 2018) CC By 2.0. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedorahere. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. This post is dedicated to my girlfriend and our outing in 1977. Happy birthday, Louise Barnes Davidson. We’ll always have Wismer.

2 comments

  1. On a related note, I’ve been thinking recently about “dark matter”. Although it is invisible to our senses, physicists speculate that this mysterious material fills virtually all of the universe.

    Solar systems and galaxies spin at terrific speeds but none of them spin their stars and planets off into space in independent trajectories (much as kids play spin the whip, and the kid at the end gets flung off into the sandbox or whatever).

    What holds these huge spinning systems together? Could this dark matter be the Creative Force of the universe? The Guiding Hand? Theological implications run through my mind.

    I’ll never figure it out, of course. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy Star Wars.

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