Supernova Sonata

What is a Supernova?

Stars which are several times more massive than our Sun end their lives in a spectacular explosion called a Supernova. The explosion occurs when the fuel for the fusion process in the core is depleted. This lack of outward pressure, which combats the inward gravitational pull, allows the star to collapse. As it shrinks, the core grows hotter and denser. New nuclear reactions begin and temporarily halt the collapse of the core. When the remaining core nuclear is basically just iron, nothing is left to fuse. Fusion in the core ends.

Very quickly, the star begins its final gravitational collapse. The core temperature rises to many billions of degrees. The iron atoms are crushed together. The force of gravity is greater than the repulsive force between the nuclei of iron. The core then recoils. The energy of the recoil produces a shock wave through the star envelope. The envelope material is heated and fuses to form new and heavier elements and radioactive isotopes. The material is exploded away from the star core and is known as a supernova remnant. Many of these are seen in the heavens. Here are examples.


Chandra X-ray Observatory

Smaller supernovae can leave behind a spinning neutron core only a few tens of miles across. Larger supernovae exert such tremendous inward shock forces that the neutron core can collapse into a black hole. It is so small and dense, that light is not fast enough to escape its gravitational pull.

Turn Up Your Volume before you watch this video. It is a musical rendition of supernovae events in a small part of the sky about as large as 16 full moons. Explanation of the process is below the video.

1. Search for Supernovae over a long time interval.

Between April 2003 and August 2006, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) monitored four regions of the sky with a large digital camera. It was watching for a type of Supernova (called Type Ia). These result from the thermonuclear detonation of white-dwarf stars.

The four fields had an area of about 16 times the area of the full Moon. That is about 1/10,000 of the entire sky. There were 241 Type Ia Supernovae seen during the three years of watching. Their positions are shown as time progresses. The animation shows a frame per day. In other words, 1 sec of video corresponds to 2 wks of real time.

2. Assign each Supernova a note to play.

Distance to each Supernova determines the volume of the note. A closer Supernova is played louder.

Supernovae also follow a similar pattern of brightening and then fading. That is seen below on the rapid rise, then slower decent of the curve. But they each also have some variations as indicated by the various colors of plots of the curves. The pitch of the notes used was determined by the Supernova’s “stretch”. How the Supernova brightens and fades is used to calculate a value for stretch. Higher notes represent higher stretch values. The pitches are from a Phrygian dominant scale for those who understand music theory.


Calán/Tololo Supernova Survey

3. Assign the instruments to be played.

Only two instruments were used. The instrument was determined by the mass of the host galaxy. Notes of Supernovae in more massive galaxies were played by upright bass. Those in less massive galaxies were played by piano.

Creators of this Work

Alex H. Parker (University of Victoria) and Melissa L. Graham (University of California Santa Barbara / LCOGT). Visit the Parker website and the Graham website.

We are stardust

If it weren’t for Supernovae, the heaviest elements would be iron. That is the top rung of the fusion process in star cores. Because of the tremendous shock waves of supernovae, fusions of  nucleii of elements heavier that iron are possible, giving us the much wider range of naturally occurring elements. Many of the elements in the rocks and minerals and our bodies came from one or more Supernovae in our vicinity of space.


24 thoughts on “Supernova Sonata

  1. We are stardust 🙂

    It’s very cool how the Supernova Sonata was put together. Brilliant! I can only image the huge amount of work which went into it. Also equally brilliant is the way Sagan had of not only explaining things, but also of putting those things in proper perspective.

    Have you been watching the new ‘Cosmos’?


    • I have been watching. He has done an excellent job. He isn’t Sagan. But, he does offer similar perspectives with his own unique style. I’d love to sit down and talk with them both some mornings over coffee.


  2. If it weren’t for Supernovae, the heaviest element would be iron.

    Interesting then, is it not, to think about just some of the elements that would be missing if not for that long-ago celestial catastrophe?



      • I just watered my greenhouse tomatoes and cukes, limited as they are by pots of finite soil, with concentrated seaweed solution containing about 70 trace elements. They don’t need much but any one of those absent cripples plants in their productivity potential, a limiting reactant.


  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful post, Jim. Setting stars to music~ how neat is that? The subject of space kind of scares me, for some reason, but you have a way of presenting it that I can grasp and that is wonderful.
    …. now about flower-tailed rattlesnakes….what a charming idea 🙂 I’ll see what I can do.


  4. Yes, I was familiar with his quest for harmony in the solar system based on a model of nested Platonic solids. Too bad for him that that’s now how things actually are in the solar system. That’s what typically happens when you try to fit reality to ideology.


  5. Like other commenters I really appreciated the opportunity to see the clip – a key bit, biologically speaking – of the original Cosmos. One of Sagan’s most powerful messages is the humility we should feel, not just within the scale of the universe but how lucky we are to live here and now, on a small planet of a “mediocre star” (his words). It seems appropriate to me that much of the supernova song is in minor keys 😉 Gaining some perspective about the existence of our species at this moment, in the vastness of time and space, and our luck in having a solar system formed from a supernova, would go a long way toward taking better care of our world. Really nice post Jim. Thanks.


    • You have said it very well. The feelings I most remember about Sagan and his Cosmos series were humility, amazement, and inspiration. Quite a mixture.

      Thank you for your kind words and great comments.


  6. I couldn’t figure out why the Supernova Sonata sounded so familiar. Finally, it clicked. I have a set of wind chimes made by a fellow in Austin. Each set is tuned to a different scale. I have an alto quartal set, and it’s lovely.

    The wind chime maker calls his business Music of the Spheres, and that, combined with your post, brought Pythagorus to mind — something that wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances, believe me. In the good Pythagorus’s Wiki, I found this: “Pythagoras first identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios.” If I’m reading your post correctly, the supernova’s “stretch” would be analogous to that string.

    It’s interesting how the randomness of wind chimes stirring results in a pleasing sound — much like the Sonata. And it’s even more interesting to remember now one of my favorite Methodist hymns. The first lines are:

    This is my Father’s world,
    and to my listening ears
    all nature sings, and round me rings
    the music of the spheres.

    I never had a clue Pythagorus was lurking in that hymn.


    • You’ve pointed out some interesting connections. I enjoy knowing of the inter connectedness of things. Years ago, a program on PBS was Connections by James Burke. It was also a book. Great program. It might still be viewable online.

      Thanks for those insights you offered.


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