B-flat: a still image from animation of sound waves generated in the Perseus Cluster. (Image: NASA).

In his famous science-fiction novel, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams said the secret to the universe was 42. However, it seems the secret is not actually a number but a musical pitch … B-flat, the tonic of the modern great highland bagpipe!

John Patterson is a retired sound engineer from New Zealand who has an interest in sound frequency and harmonics. He’s also a piper. John has brought to our attention the recent discovery by astronomers at Cambridge University in England of a “singing” black hole in a distant cluster of galaxies. Or rather, a B-flat drone sound.

When the astronomers listened, the team not only heard the lowest sound waves in the universe ever detected, but also an important clue about the formation of galaxy clusters. The findings were placed on the website of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which John has brought to our attention and which we share here:

“Dr. Andrew Fabian and his colleagues at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England made their discovery using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, an orbiting X-ray telescope that sees the universe in X-ray light just as the Hubble space telescope sees it in visible light.

A composite view and centre of the Perseus Cluster.

“The black hole is situated in the center of a galaxy amid a group of thousands of galaxies collectively called the Perseus Cluster and located 250 million light years from Earth (meaning it took the light from these galaxies 250 million years to reach us). The sound waves coming from it are in the form of a single note, so rather than a song it is really a drone.

“Using the piano keyboard’s middle C note as a reference point for the middle of the piano key music range, Fabian’s team determined the note is a B-flat. On a piano, the B-flat nearest middle C is located midway between 1/8th and 2/8th of an octave away. In musical terminology, this B-flat is 1-1/2 steps from middle C.

“The Perseus cluster black hole’s B-flat, by contrast, is 57 octaves below middle C or one million, billion times lower than the lowest sound audible to the human ear!

“In terms of frequency (the time it takes a single sound wave to pass by), the lowest sounds a person can hear is 1/20th of a second. The Perseus black hole’s sound waves have a frequency of 10 million years!

“You may be wondering how a sound wave can travel through space. After all, sound waves require some sort of stuff to move through. This stuff, called a medium, can be air, water, or even solid rock. And space is thought of as lacking any medium because it is a vacuum.

“In fact, space is not a pure vacuum but rather it contains stray bits of stuff — gas atoms and dust of varying amounts. In the case of the Perseus cluster, the gas throughout it serves as the medium through which the sound waves coming from the central black hole travel.”

“The sound waves were indirectly detected using the Chandra telescope because the cluster gas is very hot and thus emits an especially energetic form of light called X rays, as well as less energetic visible light. And the gas is so hot because of the effects of the black hole.

“More than an acoustic curiosity, these sound waves transport energy that keeps gas throughout the cluster warmer than it would otherwise be. These warmer temperatures, in turn, regulate the rate of new star formation, and hence the evolution of galaxies and galaxy clusters. This makes the findings far more significant for understanding the astrophysical evolution of the Universe.

“The Perseus sound waves are much more than just an interesting form of black hole acoustics, said Steve Allen, also of the Institute of Astronomy and co-investigator in the study. These sound waves may be the key in figuring out how galaxy clusters, the largest structures in the Universe, grow.

“Astronomers will now analyze other galaxy clusters for similar sound waves.”

John Patterson.

Whilst being a mildly amusing story for a Friday, this story has an important element to it: everything has a frequency – even Coronavirus. Our senses pick up, for example, hearing (audio), seeing (light) and smell. The frequencies of viruses are outside our senses and require special equipment to measure. A breathalyser detects alcohol in our system and likewise, we should be able to detect if the virus is in our system by simply blowing or speaking.

“This virus seems to need humidity – warm breath – to exist and to spread,” says John. “As humidity molecules are lighter than air (H2O molecules are lighter than air molecules (nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen), the breath rises up into the atmosphere and condensed water droplets fall like rain.

“Evidence is increasingly pointing to Coronavirus being transmitted as an aerosol, and so in closed spaces it will rise into the air rather than drop to the floor or surface.”

Our thanks go to John.

Organisers have announced programme details for next week’s virtual Cowal Highland Gathering.

The event begins next Thursday (August 27) with interviews, performances and a look back at some of the highlights over Cowal’s 126-year-old history. Archive footage of pipe bands, highland dancing and heavy athletics will feature and organisers say they have interviews lilned up with “some of the biggest names in their field”.

The Friday night ‘Gig at the Gathering’ starts 19.00 (GMT) and features music from Skerryvore, Tide Lines and Heron Valley.

Cowal’s Virtual Gathering will run on its Facebook page and YouTube channel from August 27-29. For more details go to: www.cowalgathering.com

A new collection of pipe tunes with a difference is released today. Journey – The Piper’s Collection is a book of pipe tunes composed by acclaimed accordionist, Gordon Shand.

Gordon Shand.

Gordon of Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, is the latest in a line of talented accordionists such as Bobby MacLeod and Jimmy Shand (no relation) and Gordon Pattulo – to compose tunes specifically for the pipes, or that at least, sit very well on the pipes.

Gordon is a well-known accordion player and composer in Scotland’s dance band scene and has performed on BBC Radio Scotland’s Take the Floor programme on several occasions. His love for the highland bagpipe has been the catalyst for this collection of original, and mostly unpublished material.

Journey – The Piper’s Collection contains 44 compositions from marches to slow airs, reels and a hornpipe, a strathspey and some jigs.

Pipers, Stuart Liddell (Inverary & District) and Martin Gillespie (Skerryvore) – who both also play accordion – have contributed a foreword.

The collection is now available to purchase directly from Gordon’s website www.gordonshand.com/shop.