The choir of the cosmos
20th March 2015

By Paul Kennedy

See Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced interviewed live on SABC's Morning Live

It’s impossible to describe the incandescent beauty of the Milky Way on a clear night, especially if you can get away from the city lights. Nor can you deny the role that stargazing has played in the arts and culture and history of humanity. How terrible, then, must it be to be robbed of this universal experience through failing eyesight?

This is the story of Dr Wanda Diaz Merced, a Puerto Rican astrophysicist who, in a cruelly ironic twist of fate, lost the use of her eyes while she was studying at university.

Most people, when faced with the task of conducting a principally visual science without the use of their eyes, would simply give up. But not Dr Merced. Instead, she embraced the challenge with characteristic pragmatism: she decided to listen to the stars instead.

Now, Dr Merced is pioneering the science of sonification – she uses computer software to translate radio or light waves from satellites and telescopes into sounds. Using this software, she can study the fluctuation in radio signals from a star, or singular astronomical events such as a coronal mass ejection (CME).

“I wanted to do science at the same level as my peers,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Speaking at this year’s Scifest Africa, she describes her work as the auditory analogue of data visualisation. “Each data set, each star and each instrument has its own voice,” she says. And from the smile on her face, she likes the way the choir sings.

Dr Merced would like her work on sonification to have an impact beyond just allowing her to study astrophysics. She thinks this technology can help sighted astrophysicists to study the skies in greater detail.

She gives the example of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the vast telescope currently under construction in the Karoo. When operational, the SKA will produce gigabytes of data every second, and processing this data will be one of the greatest scientific challenges of our time. She hopes that the sonification software that she and her colleagues are developing might help with this task.

“Technology has evolved so much, but we’re still using the same approach to analyse data, over and over again,” she says.“With such huge streams of data, we need to bring new perspectives to the field.”


Song of the stars: Dr Wanda Diaz Merced uses specially-designed software to convert radio waves and other astrophysical phenomena to a series of sounds that she can analyse. This is a sped-up sonification of a coronal mass ejection.


Latest News

14th May 2018
Through the continued support of BASF Holdings South Africa, Scifest Africa is set to embark on a jo
7th March 2018
Scifest Africa celebrates 22nd anniversary South Africa’s National Science Festival, Scifest
5th August 2017
Scifest Africa will be "Advancing Science Tourism" this August for National Science Week (NSW).
13th July 2017
National Youth Service Intern based at Scifest Africa Closing date: 16h00 on 13 October 2017 Downl
3rd March 2017
South Africa’s National Science Festival is proud to announce that Abbortsford Christian Schoo
27th February 2017
Through the continued support from the Department of Science and Technology, South Africa’s Na
25th February 2017
With only two weeks before South Africa's National Science Festival, new discoveries have been made
26th January 2017
Scifest Africa is proud to host three talented inventors at this year’s National Science Festi
18th January 2017
Experience the thrill of dance and movements as science meets the arts in a new workshop at this yea
14th January 2017
Organisers of this year’s National Science Festival, Scifest Africa, have confirmed that visit
6th December 2016
A project that is part of a high school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) boot camp,
1st December 2016
As we globally unite for World Aids Day to show support for people living with HIV/Aids and commemor
26th August 2016
Academic life is a juggling act. It involves research, teaching, applying for grants, writing scient
9th August 2016
The need for Scifest Africa to take science to learners, educators and communities promoting STEMI c
4th August 2016
Congratulations to the young scientists who showcased amazing talent at the 2016 Grahamstown Regiona
30th July 2016
The Eskom Expo for Young Scientists is South Africa’s leading, and only existing, national sci
20th April 2016
The Eskom Expo for Young Scientists is South Africa’s leading, and only existing, national sci
6th March 2016
On Friday 4 March, the official opening of Scifest Africa 2016 was held at the 1820 Settler’s
29th February 2016
Scifest Africa, South Africa’s National Science Festival, will take place in Grahamstown, East
25th February 2016
The content on the Scifest Africa 2016 programme has something for everyone. The Rhodes University S


Find what you are looking for quickly.

If you dont find it here be sure to contact us and let us know.

Department of Science SAASTA Grahamstown Foundation