Saturn: the Forbidden Planet

By Phil Plait | July 26, 2005 10:53 pm

Remember the movie Forbidden Planet? (If you haven’t, shame on you! — go out and rent it). The movie was ground-breaking in many ways, one of which was the use of electronic noise instead of music in the background. It gives the movie, a strange, eerie, unearthly feel to it.

It turns out, sometimes, that nature imitates art.

Our story starts in the center of the solar system, where a wind blows from the Sun. This wind is ethereal, wispy, and makes a laboratory vacuum seem like maple syrup. It’s no warm earthly breeze; it’s more of a sandstorm, comprised of billions of tons of electrons, protons, and other subatomic particles leaving the Sun every second. It’s also fleet: it screams along at a million miles an hour, flowing ever-outward into space.

… unless something is in the way. Planets, for example, are an obstacle for this wind. If a planet has a magnetic field, it can deflect the particles, bending them and guiding them down onto the planet. They hit the atmosphere and slow down, generating radio waves. These waves can be recorded, and translated into sound in much the same way radio station signals are when you listen on your car radio (remember them? Before podcasts and MP3s).

The sounds generated this way are… well, they’re weird. Creepy. They whistle, chirp, whoop, and moan. I found these sound files a few years back when I was doing some research on converting electromagnetic data like radio waves into sound. I’m telling you, they are downright alien. You’d swear nothing on Earth would make that noise… but there you are.

But now the weirdest of them all has come out. The Cassini spacecraft is orbiting Saturn, and it has a radio wave detector on it. When the solar wind particles move along Saturn’s magnetic field, they generated radio waves with wavelengths that are kilometers long. The Cassini scientists converted them into sound. Want some nightmares tonight? Play the results while you’re in bed tonight. Yikes.

Sweet dreams…

"… monsters from the id! […] The fool, the meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krell."

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Time Sink

Comments (25)

  1. Zoroasterix

    Ah, I’m glad that Saturn can keep up with the best of golden-age science fiction. The Cassini recording reminds me of a scene in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Imperial Earth,” in which the young protagonist (a colonist on Titan) dials a wrong number on his telephone and gets a ethereal sound from … somewhere. The whole Cassini/Huygens mission has caused me to relive and reread that somewhat (unjustly) forgotten book. I was a bit dissapointed that Huygens didn’t capture a photo of a Hydrosaurus bounding across the plains. But all in all, exciting stuff.

  2. Thomas Siefert

    Who could have known?
    Those sound guys doing Space: 1999 and Blakes 7 where right all along…..

  3. Cool, might becaul a new trend, planet listening :)

    btw if you google you can find sounds recoreded of a pulsars too!
    those remind me of more code.

  4. STR

    I love that movie poster.

  5. STR

    edit: Those sounds are rad to the max.

    Check out what John Scalzi has done with the recording.

  7. diddidit

    Author/blogger John Scalzi set the sounds to music – see for the various files available.


  8. Nigel Depledge

    OOh! Yes, that definitely sounds like monsters of the Id to me.

    It’s almost as eerie as listening to a radio signal that is bouncing off the ionisation in an aurora event (one of the three most esoteric methods radio hams use to talk to one another – the other two being meteor scatter and moonbounce).

  9. Michelle Rochon

    Aah yea, listened to that sound a couple of days ago… It’s a bit scary. ūüėõ Perfect for Halloween! Just play that in loop outside your door and you’re sure to scare every kiddo coming!

  10. Isn’t this similar to what was done for the “Symphonies of the Planets” CDs? All very cool.

  11. Samara

    It reminds me of the creepy singing in 2001 ūüėģ

    Anywhere we can get that on CD?

  12. Wolverine

    Forbidden Planet is one of my all-time favorites — the similarities here are just creepy. Love it. :)

  13. P. Edward Murray


    And it does sound really like the soundtrack!

  14. P. Edward Murray

    Yes, you can buy it from!

  15. Tim G

    Hey BA, you ever listen to New Age music? I know, New Age should rhyme with sewage but my local NPR sation plays it late night Sundays on a show called “Hearts of Space”. I like the music sometimes though it has a tendency to put me to sleep–not good for driving.

  16. Dee Jay

    Wow, that’s some cool stuff. First thing I thought of? Any of you heard of a little game called Earthbound? Not sure if anyone here plays video games or anything, but it was a cheesy little role playing game set in modern day Earth based on the golden age of sci-fi. The title screen alone consists of a small town being invaded by chrome UFOs firing death rays that look like lightning (War of the Worlds reference right from the start, ). The whole thing was about 4 super PK’d kids who saved the world using crazy time psychic powers, some apple of enlightenment, purposefully simple illustration, and at some point, time travel and classic boxy robot bodies. Um, you get to fight hippies too. Also, the aliens themselves have this awesome look of solid silvery skin and a gaping big red eye. Classic stuff.

    Anyway, the game’s music from start to end consists of odd quirky melodies backed by that exact same set of weird whisltes, chirps, whines, and staticky pops.

    But hey, that’s just my opinion on it. You can check it out for yourself if you can manage to find the game anywhere…

    Well anyway, this stuff sounds really quirky to me, as opposed to spooky, but I guess that’s just because you heard it from Forbidden Planet, whereas I heard it from what was essentially a game that was trying to be funny (and succeded in fact). Either way, this is cool stuff. In the end I think I’ll now percieve those crazy sound effects as actually being heard by the main characters. Um, I’ll say they have “x-ray hearing” super powers.

  17. George

    Wow. Even better than Forbidden Planet. I felt the ID coming at me and had to turn it off.

    [Hmmmm….maybe that’s another reason I am not keen on I.D. :) ]

  18. sarongsong

    Your closing reference to Monsters From the Id caught my eye, as the local jazz station had played Mose Allison’s musical interpretation (of same?) earlier in the day—first time I’d heard it and is still ringing in my ears:

    Monsters of the Id (Mose Allison (1969))

    Monsters of the Id, no longer staying hid

    And terrors of the night are out in broad daylight

    No need to knock on wood, don’t stop to say a prayer

    It won’t do any good, they’re multiplying everywhere

    Creatures of the deep are going without sleep

    And phantoms of the dark have their own place to park

    No need to lock the doors, they’re sprouting through the cracks

    They’re making room for more, they’re deputizing maniacs

    Prehistoric ghouls are making their own rules

    And resurrected Huns are passing out the guns

    No need to cause a fuss, don’t go and make a scene

    They know what’s best for us, they’re fighting fire with gasoline

    Creatures from the swamp rewrite their own Mein Kampf

    Neanderthals amok just trying to make a buck

    Goblins and their hags are out there waving flags

    When will we be rid . . . of Monsters of the Id

  19. Chet Twarog

    Well, Phil, not much else to do on a Sunday evening, so I watched “Forbidden Planet” again. Great effects ahead of its time–perhaps that is where most people have an idea about flying saucers, too?
    Anyways, just like many SF movies of the fifties being anti-Communist (Atheist) governments, the final line by Commander Adams (after many rewinds to get it written down) as he comforts Altaira (?)
    “and to remind us that, afterall, we are all with God.”
    Oh, yeah, when they drop out of hyper-space, the “Doc”, on seeing the planet Altair IV, says something like “what beautiful worlds the Lord makes.”
    No comments except that the “ID”, too, has been junked.

  20. Stefanf

    That sound clip sent shivers down my spine, and I thought to myself:
    Science is beautiful.

  21. Mike Nilsen

    FP Trivia:

    One of the major reasons for using electronically-generated music in Forbidden Planet was to save money. The director and his wife(?) composed the ‘music’ and, by calling it ‘Electronic Tonalities’, they were able to avoid paying Hollywood Musicians Union rates.

  22. Pat Dougherty

    So then this means that all those funky sound effects from SPACE 1999 and those cheesy 50s, 60s, and 70s sci-fi flicks and series weren’t so cheesy after all?

  23. saturn is a beautiful planet it is the second biggest planet it is yellow and gold coulour

  24. Wow. Can you imagine what our music could have developed into if our human ears had been able to actually hear that on their own?

    Sure, it’s creepy, but it’s somehow beautiful, too. And I don’t think we would have thought it odd or wierd if we were more “used” to hearing it.

  25. dartigen

    The Cassini sound almost sounds like an engine to me, or perhaps some sort of machinery.
    Ahh, if only I was better at making music, I’d do something with these. Make some trippy ambient music or something.


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