"Wow, this is insane," says Detroit techno luminary Jeff Mills.
He's standing on a rickety staircase in the observatory of the University of Amsterdam, peering through a telescope at the sun. Mills is smiling. "I can see so many solar flares. How high are those?" he asks.
"Thousands and thousands of miles, probably," answers astronomer Lucas Ellerbroek. "They could easily be as big as our entire planet." Mills and his wife/manager Yoko are being guided around the observatory by Ellerbroek, and are eagerly taking in all the information around them. Like a curious student on a field trip, Mills keeps asking questions and pointing out facts.
If you've followed the techno legend's career even just a little bit, you'll know he's a huge space nerd, as well as a vocal futurist. In the same manner that sci-fi writers weave the latest scientific discoveriesinto their stories, Mills incorporates new astronomical revelations into his music. Over the past ten years or so, the universe has been a recurring fixation in his musical output. He's made albums about Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri and compositions about astronauts, and concepted live shows around the idea of time travel. Tonight, he will perform his piece The Planets, inspired by the composition of the same name by Gustav Holst, in the Royal Concert Hall in Amsterdam. Which is why I thought it would be fun to visit the observatory with Mills—and luckily, he agreed.
Lucas Ellerbroek was equally excited by the idea, and decided to join us. The astronomer recently published a book called Planetenjagers—or "Planet Hunters" in English—about the search for planets that resemble Earth. Unsurprisingly, Mills was excited to meet him.
"Ever since I was a child, I loved looking at the stars," Mills says. "I grew up in Detroit, where there's too much light pollution to get a good look at the sky, but my parents often took me on vacations. To me, the idea of being able to look at a clear, dark sky was something to be excited about for months." Popular culture further whet his appetite for astronomy. "I grew up reading and collecting comic books—I had everything from Marvel and a little from DC," he explains. "That was the thing I liked best, and then came TV shows and movies. I learned about Alpha Centauri when I watched the series Lost in Space. It's about a team that tries to reach that star, but gets lost. So that's why, at five years old, I already knew about the universe. Thanks to a TV show."
As Mills sees it, art, music, and sci-fi can help to make the sort of abstract research Ellerbroek and his colleagues do easier to digest, and can function as thought experiments for what the future might hold. "My favorite things to look at are space exploration, planets, and the possibility of colonizing them," he says. "Back in school, I was never good at math and science, but I thought, What if I could translate those ideas to electronic music, to blur the lines a bit? I hope to educate my audience. At least a little."
In the meantime we've moved from the solar telescope to a telescope scientists use for watching stars. Ellerbroek takes us on a guided tour through the universe using the free-to-download app Stellarium. "Hey, something's moving!" Mills says, pointing at the screen. "Ah, that might be a satellite." Slowly but surely, Mills is becoming more relaxed. "Man, I'd love to have a telescope like this on my roof," he says. "I mean, I have a small one, but nothing like this."
Ellerbroek uses the app to show us which exoplanets—planets in other galaxies—have been discovered. "The first one was only discovered in 1995," he says. "It was the dawn of a new scientific pursuit: the search for planets like our own. Have you heard the news that the first planet near Proxima Centauri has been discovered? If we could ever get that far, it would be the first planet we'd travel to. It's so exciting."
He points to a small patch in the sky, one that the Kepler Space Observatory has been pointing at for five years and where scientists suspect thousands of planets to be located. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg," says Ellerbroek. "This tells us that there are more planets than stars. Can you imagine?
I'm starting to get dizzy at the thought of so many planets. It's hard to comprehend. Mills agrees. He starts to stammer: "Wow… eh… what… people that think there's no life outside of our planet? I mean it has to be there. From a science-fiction viewpoint, it's interesting to think about: what's looking at us from those planets? Are they alarmed by the fact we're searching for them? Maybe they can feel it."
Ellerbroek starts talking enthusiastically about the movie Contact. "As soon as the aliens in that film make contact with Earth, they send a fragment of the first radio waves humankind sent into space," he says. "They're recordings of Hitler on the radio. Not a weird thought: maybe there's creatures out there that pick up those radio waves right now."
But before we even begin to think about traveling to planets in other galaxies, Mills says how it's interesting enough to just explore the planets in our own solar systems—a subject he says forms the central focus of his performance piece The Planets. "I was inspired by Gustav Holst, who wrote a seven-movement orchestral suite about the planets, a hundred years ago," he says. "But where he focused on Greek mythology, I look at the science, the physical properties of the planets, and how you could move around them."
Mills continues, describing the specific ways in which science informed his latest opus. "It's fantasy and science fiction, but based on actual science," he says. "Just before the first performance, water was discovered on Pluto. So we put similar motifs in the compositions of Earth and Pluto at the last minute. Saturn spins the fastest, so that piece has the fastest tempo. There's even a small passage with bass flute and horn that's dedicated to Saturn's moon Titan. The idea is that if you listen to The Planets, you get a better understanding of the planets."
Mills has done research of his own. Before putting together The Planets, he spoke at length with Mamoru Mohri, Japan's first astronaut, who was launched into space in 1992 and 2000. Mills even made a piece about him, Where The Light Ends, but has since used his input in many more musical pieces. "I asked him what it was like to go into space, what the sun looks like with the naked eye, what it's like to be in total darkness," says Mills. "But also: what did he think the universe is? I told him I had the idea that it's this kind of living organism, a gigantic organism that we're all part of. He agreed. In the end, we're all a product of the universe, and the most important thing in the history of mankind is understanding where we come from and where we're headed. It's so incredibly important to find those answers."