Instruments to Make Music With Aliens: Gamma Ray Bells and Gravitational Wave Cellos

Experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats is playing some crazy cosmic vibes

5 min read

Jonathon Keats founded Intergalactic Omniphonics to build instruments that enable jam sessions with aliens.
Jonathon Keats founded Intergalactic Omniphonics to build instruments that enable jam sessions with aliens.
Photo: University of North Carolina-Asheville

Sure, humans have tried before to communicate with any extraterrestrials who might be out there. Most notably, the two Voyager probes that launched in 1977 both carry a copy of the golden record, a trove NASA intended to communicate “a story of our world” with images, nature sounds, music, and spoken greetings. Voyager 1 has already left our solar system and is venturing out into interstellar space with its record, and Voyager 2 is following not far behind. 

But experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats says that if we really want to convince aliens to make first contact, we should do more than just tell them our story. “If you’re in a bar and hear someone who just keeps talking about themselves, it gets annoying,” he says. “I’m trying to make something that’s more universal and more inclusive. Something that’s not only about us, but also the connection that we have to them—whoever they are.”

So, Keats has founded Intergalactic Omniphonics—which he calls a startup and others might call a fine example of concept art—to bring sentient beings together through music. He has created several new instruments that he hopes will be accessible to aliens, even if their senses are considerably different from ours. He has also written a piece of music that he calls a universal anthem to express our commonality. 

If you happen to be in San Francisco this evening, you can swing by the Modernism Gallery to check out the instruments; Intergalactic Omniphonics is having a launch party there and will be doing some demos. There will be music in the air, though you won’t actually hear it.

The Ultrasonic OrganThe ultrasonic organ, made from dog whistles, may get a reaction from aliens who have a broader hearing range than humans. Maybe we can play it for beings hailing from the Canis Major constellation.Photo: Michelle Troszak

The simplest of the instruments that Keats created during a residency at University of North Carolina Asheville’s STEAM studio, in collaboration with the sculptor Amelia Pate, is the dog whistle organ. Recognizing that the human hearing range is extremely limited—spanning the audio frequencies of about 20 to 20,000 hertz—Keats and Pate built an organ with a foot pump that sends a flow of air through the various whistles. The valves atop the whistles can be opened and closed to control the pitch.

Gamma bellsThese gamma bells may not produce the kind of tintinnabulation that we’re accustomed to, but the gamma rays they emit could be music to alien ears.Photo: Michelle Troszak

But what if the aliens aren’t sensitive to the changes in air pressure that we call sound? “Music is the modulation of frequency and amplitude over time,” Keats says. “So anything that allows for that can carry a tune.” He turned to the electromagnetic spectrum, but didn’t want to limit himself to the portion that’s visible to the human eye. He decided to work with gamma rays, which are emitted by radioactive materials.

And the source of his radioactive materials? Ebay, of course. “I got radium in an old watch dial, and uranium in an old marble,” he says. To make the gamma ray bells ring out gaily, the player lifts the little lead casings that cover the materials—and can do so in a rhythmic fashion to make a strange kind of song.  

Another elegant instrument is his cello that sends out gravitational waves—a musical modality that he says has huge potential for interstellar communication because the waves move through the universe at the speed of light. While humans only detected these waves for the first time in 2015, and only because an epic merger of two black holes sent out a powerful signal, other beings might be more sensitive to them. Thus, an instrument that controls the frequency and amplitude of faint gravitational waves might send a musical message to the aliens.

The Gravitational CelloAs Jonathon Keats didn’t have access to a black hole or neutron star, his gravitational wave cello uses a swinging ball bearing to generate its waves.Photo: Jonathon Keats

The cellist plays the instrument by swinging ball bearings of different masses. Keats notes that players have to keep their body movements minimal, otherwise they’ll overpower their cellos’ waves with those generated by their bodies. 

These instruments, and others that Keats is busily building, would allow for cosmic jam sessions between humanity and any beings who are out there. He’d like his fellow humans to feel the joys of connecting with the “other,” and to apply any lessons learned more locally. “We could help people recognize that it’s not so outlandish to communicate and build society with those we consider alien,” he says. “I would love to have a jam session between us and [the nearby exoplanet] Gliese 581d. And I would love to have one across the U.S. and Mexican border.” 

As for what to play with these instruments (beyond obvious songs like David Bowie’s Starman), Keats gave that question some thought as well. His answer was a universal anthem that he hopes will be “cognitively meaningful” to any being in the universe. “I’m sure I’ve failed,” he says ruefully, “I’m sure there are some beings that are feeling left out. But I tried my best.”

The anthem takes as its theme the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that any closed system, including the universe, inevitably becomes more entropic and disordered over time. Against this backdrop, we, the living beings of the universe, extract useful energy from our environments during our life-spans, to make our our own little selves less entropic. But eventually we die and decay and our energy goes back into the mix.  

“The anthem communicates what it is to be alive, since that’s what we have in common with every organism on this planet, and any organism elsewhere in universe,” Keats says. To represent this concept musically, the anthem’s score calls for a soloist, representing beings everywhere, to make music that goes from a state of greater to lesser entropy, as the larger orchestra tends toward greater entropy in the background. Ultimately, the soloist voice becomes more entropic to represent death, and the orchestra becomes marginally less entropic as the being’s energy is added back in. Then it repeats. That’s the cycle of life.

Keats would love to send the anthem beaming out into space, perhaps via the powerful Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Until then, he says, “I’m hoping we can get it played at some ballparks.”

An abridged version of this post appears in the September 2018 print issue as “Music For Aliens.”

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions