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 spotlight: hear sounds of the ionosphere

Daily now through Friday, September 16, 12-1 pm
Green building (54)

Closing event "Sound Off"
Friday, September 16, 5-7 pm

  Home - MIT by Lynn Heinemann, Office of the Arts

The Green Building is humming, and not just from activities in its labs and offices and classrooms. Thanks to Carrie Bodle (SM Visual Studies 2005), Building 54 has been turned into a giant speaker, resonating with sounds from the upper level of the Earth's atmosphere.

Every day, through Friday, Sept. 16, from 12-1 p.m., "Sonification / Listening Up," a large-scale sound installation using 35 speakers installed on the south facade of the building, will broadcast an abstract sound collage generated from research data collected in the ionosphere.

"Sonification / Listening Up," is a perfect example of collaboration between the arts and sciences, says Bodle. The project, she maintains is "exemplary for MIT's interests in creating an environment in which the arts merge with technology to create inspirations for artists and scientists."

Conceived in collaboration with Dr. Philip Erickson of the Atmospheric Sciences Division at MIT's Haystack Observatory, "Sonification / Listening Up" makes tangible the temporally dynamic composition of ions and electrons in the upper atmosphere which are affected by interaction between the Earth and the sun. The result, says Bodle, is a "sonification of the interplay of sun winds with the Earth's atmosphere," a continuous interaction that takes place some 60 miles above ground level.

Bodle's impetus for the project was hearing a segment on National Public Radio's "The Next Best Thing" about British astro-seismologists who listened to the stars by extracting radio waves from frequency, amplitude and phase. "Different stars, such as the sun or red dwarfs made different sounds," said Bodle, who found herself fascinated by the process.

Having previously toured the Haystack Observatory, Bodle found herself amazed at the scale of the facility. After a "tea time" with Haystack's radio astronomers, at which she played the NPR tape, she connected with Erickson, whose work also involved frequency, amplitude and phase of the stars.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Haystack is currently the only observatory in the continental US that uses ground-based sensing technique to map changes in the makeup of the ionosphere. Such changes, especially during disturbed periods, can affect the precision of GPS technology and other man-made long distance and satellite transmissions.

The temporary system of 20" speakers were professionally installed in seven tiers up the face of the building, on 48" brackets using steel safety cables and cushion pads to protect the building facade. NE Cleaning, the contractor that MIT uses for its window cleaning, helped install the speakers. Bodle also had a team of approximately ten friends and MIT students who helped attach speaker wires, steel cables, lowering speakers to facade, and providing safety from below.

David Barber, Assistant Director of Safety, and Dave McCormick, Supervisor of Facilities, were heavily involved with the logistics and safety concerns of installing a public art project of this scale, says Bodle, who notes that the project, which had been planned for May, was postponed to address these concerns.

She redesigned the temporary speaker attachment assembly, working with Peter Morley, Supervisor of the Central Machine Shop. After carrying out a series of tests on the building and attaining approvals from Earth Atmospherics and Planetary Sciences administration in Building 54, as well as from Facilities and the Safety Office, the project was finally good to go on Friday, Sept. 9.

There will be an information site at the base of the building with information regarding the sounds being heard, pamphlets from Haystack Observatory, and exhibition details.

The installation has been funded by the Office of the Provost, Vice President for Research and Associate Provost, Associate Provost for the Arts, Department of Architecture, the Visual Arts Program, and the Council for the Arts at MIT.

A closing event titled, "Sound Off" will be held on Friday, Sept. 16 from 5-7 p.m.

For more information, e-mail Carrie Bodle at
  download the PDF flyer
exhibit flyer: download PDF


exhibit info
the Green building with a large-scale sound installation


exhibit info
close-up of the speakers