Wheel of stars

By Phil Plait | January 15, 2010 11:14 am

I sometimes ruminate over how to meld astronomy, computers, and preaching to the public. There are lots of ways to make astronomy interesting and accessible, and lots of people turning those possibilities into realities.

wheelofstarsOne of the most interesting and clever ways to do this has been done by Jim Bumgardner: he’s created a piece of software that takes the positions of stars in the sky, maps them, and then has it make an ethereal musical tone whenever a star crosses the meridian (the imaginary line in the sky that connects due north, through the zenith, to due south). He calls it the Wheel of Stars, and it’s really very soothing and wonderful.

As he puts it:

As the stars cross zero and 180 degrees, indicated by the center line, the clock plays an individual note, or chime for each star. The pitch of the chime is based on the star’s BV measurement (which roughly corresponds to color or temperature). The volume is based on the star’s magnitude, or apparent brightness, and the stereo panning is based on the position on the screen (use headphones to hear it better).

I see this as being very useful in planetaria between shows, as a screen saver, or as a projector in a kid’s room. Things like this make me smile. I like clever people; they make the world a far more interesting place.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (33)

  1. Cool, Phil! Now I have another “Website of the Month” for my CAS PowerPoint for the monthly meeting. I can hook it up to the speakers at McCormick as well!

  2. mike burkhart

    I’ve be thinking the same thing as Phill I think we need video games based on science fact as I said in a letter to Phill most video games I’ve played ignore science fact completly also Phill I think you should write a book about astronomacal facts (how about calling it good astronomy) you could have an edtion for older readers and and edtion for children

  3. Gus Snarp

    I want to like it, but I don’t get it.

  4. Greg in Austin

    @Gus Snarp,

    Its a music box, using the stars as the notes. It plays the same song for 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.091 seconds, then repeats. Some people like music boxes, some people don’t.

    I think the music has an ethereal quality to it. I remember having CD’s years ago of the vibrations picked up by the Voyager probes, converted to sound. Those were also somewhat ethereal, but different.


  5. Navneeth

    Gus Snarp,

    There’s nothing to “get” here. It’s simply numbers mapped to sounds. There’s no composer behind it, per se. (Of course, if Mr. Bumgardner decides to change the parameters, it may sound differently, but still, there will not be any alteration of “meaning”; and there was none to start with from what I can see.) It just sounds “cool,” if you will. :)

    And to Mr. Bumgardner: that’s a nice piece of work.

  6. Jeffersonian

    This reminds of a question I have for Phil (or anybody with more sidereal knowledge than me).

    I was reading about the Crab Nebula supernova in 1054CE. The Chinese were duly impressed.
    Did other cultures note it? Why/Why not?

    Bigger question I still don’t understand about telescope play:
    As the Earth rotates, and if you lived close to the Equator, wouldn’t there be certain sections of sky that you can see that people antipodian to you could not (and vice versa), since they face a different direction at night (within the short time frame of a supernova)? I may have the calculation wrong but is the Crab Nebula in that decl/right asc. ?
    I suspect something is wrong with my thinking, but hey, here to learn.

  7. Michelle R

    I been listening to it for half an hour. Now I feel all creepy inside.

    I like it!

  8. Ugh. I really Do Not Like this one.

    The notes are not soothing at all, more like a harsh, high-pitched squeal. For a few moments, I thought that a neighbour must have had their alarm clock set too loud.

  9. Kula Dhad

    Hey Phil,

    This music is “hauntingly beautiful”. I wish there was a way to download it so that I could take it to work and listen there too. Good find!

  10. cmflyer

    I’d like to know how the star’s temp/color affects the note. Is that the pitch? Hotter higher?

  11. Sean McCorkle

    yeah – hotter is higher in pitch. White stars ring at a higher note than yellow. Fainter stars are quieter. Unfortunately, most of the redder stars are low brightness (main sequence) so I haven’t heard a good loud low red or orange one yet. From the looks of it I’ll have to wait a few hours for Adlebaran (an orange giant) to cross.

  12. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Great idea – I like it. Echoes of Ptolemy’s (or was it Plato’s or Pythagoras’) “Music of the Spheres” here. :-)

  13. GK4

    A good application of an interesting idea. But my cat hates it!

  14. Spectroscope

    @ 12 PBFP :

    The ‘Music of the spheres’ was Pythagoras’ idea. Wikipedia has a reasonable page on it :


    & off topic but interesting too, Wikipedia also note that we’ve (well some people anyhow) just had a great annular eclipse on their homepage news :

    In the news … An annular solar eclipse (pictured in the Central African Republic), the longest of the third millennium, occurs over parts of Africa, the Indian Ocean and Asia.

  15. StevoR

    Thinking ‘music of the spheres’, there was a series of excellent special events by that very name where classical musicians played inside the Adelaide Planetarium (http://www.unisa.edu.au/planetarium/ ) at Mawson Lakes (South Australia) where various musicians (incl. a harpist, flutist & violin player) played inside the planetarium. The acoustics in the planetarium dome were fantastic and we introduced a lot of music lovers to astronomy and the night sky. The astronomer operating the planetarium would give a basic tour of the night sky – and, yes, the musicians – who were very skillful indeed – played in the dark! :-)

  16. WJM

    Echoes of Ptolemy’s (or was it Plato’s or Pythagoras’) “Music of the Spheres”

    Echoes of the opening of the original Star Trek title sequence!

  17. 9. Kula Dhad Says:

    Hey Phil,

    This music is “hauntingly beautiful”. I wish there was a way to download it so that I could take it to work and listen there too. Good find!

    Not to condone ‘theft of music’ or such, but if you don’t have an audio recorder/editor program (e.g. Cool Edit- now owned by Adobe and renamed, or Audacity, a freeware editor), you could spend about $15 (price may vary, I bought it long ago) on Total Recorder, which allows ‘capture’ of any audio that can go through your speakers.
    TR also has an editor in the more advanced (and more expensive) versions.


  18. I think Gus may be quoting an old (late in the original series) Dr Who episode, where the Tardis lands in the Louvre, and John Cleese and Eleanor Bron walk by and think it’s an exhibit.

  19. jearley

    Jeffersonian Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    This reminds of a question I have for Phil (or anybody with more sidereal knowledge than me).

    I was reading about the Crab Nebula supernova in 1054CE. The Chinese were duly impressed.
    Did other cultures note it? Why/Why not?

    Jeffersonian: There are a few interesting ‘rock art’ glyphs in the American Southwest that seem to show the event- a bright star drawn next to a crescent moon and the Pleiades. There is at least one account of it from a Christian physician living in Cairo. The Japanese also noted it.
    As to why or why not- There is no good agreement. Europeans did not even note the 1004 SN, which was much brighter. It was a rough time, and even the church was under attack from local proto-knights, so they probably did not get much chance to study the sky.

  20. 9. Kula Dhad Says: “This music is “hauntingly beautiful”. I wish there was a way to download it so that I could take it to work and listen there too.”

    At the bottom of the page he has a link to a 10 minute mp3 file. Just put it on “repeat” and you’ll probably be fine for background music.

    – Jack

  21. Kevin

    I want to play this sometime at our observatory while actually watching the stars. And it would be great to play during a public observing session.

  22. Kevin,

    This is Jim Bumgardner, the composer of the Wheel of the Stars. I’d love to help figure out a way to get this to work with actual stars, perhaps using a live CCD sensor to trigger the notes. Contact me if you’d like my help.

  23. Jeffersonian


    wow, great answer!

    Does anybody know the other part:
    If you are on the equator, would there be a constellation(s) that you can see at night that a person on the equator 180 degrees from you can not see 12 hours later?

  24. Patrick


    There aren’t. Two people at the same latitude can see the exact same constellations even if they are on opposite sides of the planet. (Though obviously not at the same time)

  25. KC

    That’s neat. It might help non-stargazers viewing this to have some of the constellation figures added to this.

  26. Jim, I played this for my WoW raid group (not handing in my nerd certificate any time soon) and they were all duly haunted and impressed. The one feature everyone agreed was needed was locality. I’m assuming that the 0 and 180 degrees mentioned on your site is the Prime Meridian and International Date Line, respectively. I don’t care what sound the stars make over Greenwich, my apologies if I offended anyone who does, but being able to hear the stars cross over my head is worth leaving the computer on overnight.

  27. Regner Trampedach

    Jeffersonian @ 6, 24 and Patrick @ 25:
    “Anti-podans” will get to see the same piece of sky 6 months later, when Earth is on the opposite side of the Sun (Not quite right, since this assumes a circular orbit, whereas it actually is elliptical – but it is a good first approximation). Depending on the objects position in the “podan’s” sky, the “anti-podans” might see it quite a bit earlier or later than 6 months hence. Skymap/planetarium programs are good for playing around with this sort of question. Try ‘kstars’ (Google it) if you are running Linux.
    Cheers, Regner

  28. Jeffersonian


    Excellent. Thanx!

  29. Jeffersonian

    My logic (fwiw) is, you’re seeing the area of space that can be seen (at night) while facing away from the sun, given the time of year. A line drawn from the sun through the Earth and continuing towards a focal point would be the (center of the) area seen from the Equator at night; but then that would change, for both viewers, six months later.

    So, my thinking is that some constellations will change six months later as viewed from the Equator (meaning I lean towards Patrick’s answer) – but I’ve never heard of this phenomenon, so I question it . For that reason, a friend of mine agrees with Regner (above). Our discussion included a little modeling (but not the program mentioned, which sounds helpful). Do any other ecliptic plane people wanna weigh in?

  30. Jeffersonian

    The idea coming from the fact that, since there is change in constellations through the year at 40 degrees N (Orion, for example), there must be a Lat. where that effect is at an extreme. Since the southern hemisphere sees austral skies, the northern see boreal skies, both see equatorial constellations (albeit at different α) and the polar regions have circumpolar constellations right overhead, wouldn’t the extremity ecliptic be the Equator?

  31. Madame_Furie

    Is there an iPhone app for that?



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