Engaging citizens to become ‘star listeners’

The Flemish citizen science project AstroSounds launches a call to Flemish citizens to listen to stars. In this way, citizens can help scientific research. As of January 11, 2022, visitors can discover AstroSounds (in Dutch) via a physical installation in the Tweebronnen Library in Leuven, as part of the KNAL! City Festival. Linked to the installation is a Belgian case study within the ParCos project, that aims to research how vertical video content on public screens can inform and engage people with science stories.

Many people think that astronomy is mainly focused on visual observation, but you can also listen to the stars. Some stars actually vibrate; they reverberate like giant gongs. We cannot hear these sounds directly, but we can find out about the changes in light from the stars. These, in turn, can be converted into audible sounds. Thus, it is possible to recognise a star by the timbre or the sound of its vibrations.

Within astronomy, there is a true explosion of data thanks to the new generation of space telescopes. Can the human ear be used efficiently to analyse the data flow within this field? This is the research question that lies at the heart of the citizen science project AstroSounds, set up by KU Leuven, Hogeschool UCLL, PXL Music and the Planetarium of the Royal Observatory of Belgium.

AstroSounds is a call to everyone, young and old, to help advance science by listening to stars and classifying them based on their timbre and pitch. The AstroSounds team is investigating to what extent the human ear can distinguish types of stars and can help analyse new (star) data in the future.

“With AstroSounds, we want to demonstrate that our hearing is a very powerful instrument that can also be used for scientific research,” says Katrien Kolenberg, astronomer at KU Leuven. “Stars like our sun are gigantic balls of gas, with different properties that give rise to different sounds when we convert the data to sound. By letting a large audience listen to different types of stars without prior knowledge, we can find out how powerful the ear is for data analysis. We might even be able to hear some of the subtle differences between stars more easily than we can see them! With this approach, we also make science more inclusive.”

Interaction with the public in science and communication

Furthermore, the AstroSounds project gets an extra research component on science communication within ParCos. As part of the project, VRT worked together with students of LUCA School of Arts to make scientific information more transparant and visual. Some of the results are several short, animated videos that are shown on public screens in the Bib Leuven Tweebronnen.

Workshop with LUCA students

The aim is to research through which media and channels complex, scientific information can reach a broad audience. The location is an asset because the library is not only visited by an interested public, but also by spontaneous passers-by of all ages, who may initially be less likely to explore scientific information.

Video content on semi public screens