The English rock band Joy Division released their debut studio album “Unknown Pleasures” 40 years ago. The front cover doesn’t feature any words, only a now iconic black and white data graph showing 80 wiggly lines representing a signal from a pulsar in space. To mark the anniversary of the album, Manchester University recorded a signal from the same pulsar with a radio telescope in Jodrell Bank Observatory, only 14 miles (23 km) away from Strawberry Studios where the album was recorded.
Peter Saville – graphic designer and co-founder of Factory Records – designed the album cover based on a picture spotted by band member Bernard Sumner in an encyclopaedia. The picture itself can be traced to the work of the postgraduate student Harold Craft, who published the image in his PhD thesis in 1970.
What we see in this enigmatic image is the signal produced by a pulsar known as B1919+21, the first pulsar ever discovered. A pulsar is formed during the violent death of a star several times more massive than our sun. These stars go out with a bang known as a “supernova explosion”, during which the core of the exploding star is compressed in an almost perfect sphere with a radius of little more than 10 km. What’s formed is called a neutron star.
This stellar remnant, still more massive than our sun, is so extremely dense that the atoms from the original star cannot maintain their structure – they fall apart leaving smaller particles called neutrons, which form a vast ocean beneath the star’s crust. Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars that can be observed from Earth. Thanks to their rotation and a magnetic field which is a trillion times stronger than that of the Earth, the magnetic north and south poles of these super magnets shine like a lighthouse. After having travelled for many hundreds of years, flashes of radiation from B1919+21 reach the Earth every 1.34 seconds.
These flashes from pulsars are especially bright at radio wavelengths, so their signals can be recorded using radio telescopes. A radio telescope works similar to a radio in your car – its antenna focuses radio waves from space onto a point where they can be detected and turned into an electric signal, which can then be converted into sound. They used the Mark II radio telescope of the Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester for our recording.
Recording of the same pulsar, exactly 40 years after the album was released.
Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester