ON THE UNKNOWN PLEASURE OF PULSARS
All good things begin with explosions –the universe through the creative act of the big bang, the creation of a new life through the big bang of love and orgasm, and neutron stars when a star somewhere between four to eight times as massive as our own sun explodes into a supernova. If the star had been larger and more massive when it went supernova it would keep on collapsing and turn into a black hole. As the protons and electrons melt away in the all-consuming fire, the core of the star collapses in on itself and the electrons and protons melt into each other to form the super dense neutron star.
Neutron stars are the smallest and densest of the currently known stellar objects. They are about the size of a small city, close to that of Manhattan Island, with a diameter of 20 kilometers. Their mass however is 1.4 times that of our sun. Gravity on a neutron star is near 2 billion times that experienced on earth. A single sugar cube would way a billion tons. The gravitation on these objects is so strong it bends the radiation of light.
These things also spin at incredibly fast speeds, continuing to move on the momentum and energy imparted to them by the supernova explosion. They can spin as fast as 43,000 rotations per minute gradually decelerating as the force of their creation dissipates.
Some neutron stars are like lighthouses. Pulses of cosmic electromagnetic material beam out of them at nearly the speed of light. As these beams sweep past Earth they flicker like the powerful lantern or bulb inside the lighthouse. Even though this “light” is always on, it can only be detected when the keeper of the lighthouse sweeps the beam in the direction of Earth.
Though neutron stars had been theorized as far back as the 1930s, the wild spinning ones with extreme magnetic fields that emitted radio waves and came to be known as pulsars were first detected in 1967 by Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell Burnell who were working together at the Mullard Radio Astronomical Observatory in Cambridge in 1967.
Bell had made an observation that Hewish recognized as being something deserving of further investigation, a regular pattern of pulsed radio signals. One thought was that they were caused by interference from Earth. They also had to speculate that the signals were coming from intelligent extraterrestrial life forms sending out cosmic communiques. Yet Hewish had a hunch that they were instead emissions from certain stars.
On this extraterrestrial matter Bell Burnell said, “we did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?"
Looking at the matter closely they observed that pulses were separated by 1:33 seconds and originated from the same place in the sky. The pulses kept to sidereal time, and the shortness of them eliminated most then-known astrophysical sources for the emissions. The rate of the pulse also eliminated that it was of human origin. They looked for the signal using another radio telescope and when it was detected this eliminated the possibility that it was caused by a fault in the instrumentation.
They gave the signal the nickname LGM-1, for “Little Green Men” in playful honor of the possible origin. When a second pulsating signal was discovered in a different part of the sky the “Little Green Men” hypothesis was given up. Officially the pulsar was given the name CP 1919, and now has a few other names as well, PSR B1919+21 and PSR J1921+2153, none as easy to remember as LGM-1. Though first studied on radio wavelengths, have also been found to emit gamma rays, x-rays, as well as physical light.
PSR B1919+21 went on to have a life of its own in the burgeoning indie music underground. Bernard Sumner, lead guitarist and founding member of Joy Division, had noticed a unique image when leafing through the 1977 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. He thought it might be an enigmatic picture to use as the cover for an album. What he happened to be looking at was a stacked plot of pulses from B1919+21.
In the book itself there wasn’t much information about who made the image. There was the little caption that said, “Successive pulses from the first pulsar discovered, CP 1919, are here superimposed vertically. The pulses occur every 1.337 seconds. They are caused by rapidly spinning neutron star.” That was that. In the January 1971 issue of Scientific American the plot also made an appearance with a credit saying it was based on data collected from the Arecibo Radio Observatory, though no specific creator is given for the image itself.
The original creator of the plot chart was eventually tracked down by journalist and science writer Jen Christiansen. She noted that, “the charts from Bell at Mullard were output in real time, using analogue plotting tools. A transition in technology from analogue to digital seemed to have been taking place between the discovery of pulsars in 1967 to the work being conducting at Arecibo in 1968 through the early 1970′s. A cohort of doctoral students from Cornell University seemed to be embracing that shift, working on the cutting edge of digital analysis and pulsar data output.” So she combed through the work of students at the time and managed to trace the image to a PhD thesis by Harold D. Craft, Jr. titled “Radio Observations of the Pulse Profiles and Dispersion Measures of Twelve Pulsars.”
Sumner passed along the image to Peter Saville, the graphic designer for the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and co-founder of Factory Records, who released the album.. Saville concurred that the image would make a great cover. The band wanted to use the image as it had originally appeared black-on-white, but Saville convinced the colors would look better reversed to white-on-black. "I was afraid it might look a little cheap. I was convinced that it was just sexier in black," he said.
Following Unknown Pleasure the band released a seven inch single of their song “Transmission.” The lyrics exhort the listeners to “dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.” Continuing with the astronomical theme the sleeve contained an image of a distant galaxy.
Joy Division left an indelible stamp on the underground music scene and the development of post-punk. Their career was painfully short, a micro blip of time, as quick and fast as the radio burst transmitted by a pulsar. Ian Curtis the lead singer had been struggling with epilepsy, a failing marriage, and a deep depression and he took his own life in 1980 at the age of 23.
Their career was cut painfully short when Ian Curtis lost his battle to suicide less than a year since the release of their debut single. Although they were only together for such a short space of time, Joy Division helped change alternative music forever with their dark lyrics coupled with Curtis’ trademark delivery which were so unlike anybody else at the time. The other band members went on to found New Order as the dawn faded into day.
Through the use of radio astronomy images as a source for innovative graphic design derived from data Joy Division set a precedent. Later musicians and artists would take that cue, along with the tools of data sonification and use it to create music from the vast pools of astrophysical information being created by researchers.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
21st Century Astronomy
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.