Take a break and listen to the sounds around you. What do you notice? Is there anything surprising that you've been tuning out? How do the sounds change over time, and do they improve or degrade your well-being?
Courtesy David Benbennick
It's easy to think of sound as a side-effect of important behaviors like communication, transportation, building stuff, etc. But could sound be important all on its own, worthy of our attention? We all live within environments of sound, and so do animals. In fact, there's a emerging field called soundscape ecology, which aims to study sound and its relationship with ecosystem health.
Traditionally, studies focus on the sound of one animal to understand its communication. For example, one scientist recently decoded prairie dog-ese.
But soundscape ecologists don't look at individual animal sounds so much as the bigger picture--they want to know which animals are loud or quiet, which ones have higher or lower pitches, which animals follow the sounds of other animals, and then they try to put it all together to understand the soundscape as a system that shows how animals interact with each other through sound. They also want to understand how human sounds impact these soundscapes.
Researchers compared bird life around noisy equipment that compresses natural gas with similar — but quiet — habitat. In Alberta, they found that birds had fewer offspring at the noisy sites. Similar results came from the Southwestern U.S.
Species that use echolocation, such as bats and (potentially extinct) Yangtze river dolphins, have trouble locating prey and moving safely through their habitat when unexpected sounds disrupt their echos.
Musician David Teie has even shown that he can create music that impacts the moods of tamarins.
And then there are the impacts of human sound on humans. Garret Keizer writes in his book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, that he "chose to write a book about noise because it is so easily dismissed as a small issue. And because in that dismissal I believe we can find a key for understanding many of the big issues."
Courtesy John PozniakKeizer distinguishes between sound and noise, which is unwanted sound. He discusses how soundscapes are divided up according to wealth and sociopolitical power--that there are people who make noise and people who listen. Airports or loud factories might be built near less affluent neighborhoods, for example. Keizer asks us to recognize that the sounds we make can have impacts beyond us:
A person who says “My noise is my right” basically means “Your ear is my hole.”
So sound can be an indicator of larger social issues or ecological disruptions. As you read this, do you notice anything about the sounds around you that make you think of a bigger issue or problem?
The mystery of why thousands of dead blackbirds were found in a small town in Arkansas on New Year's Eve has been solved. Loud sounds, possibly fireworks, scared the birds from their roosts, sending them into a panic that led them flying into house and in some cases, directly into the ground. Here's the initial video report of the event:
I'm sure there's a lot of jokes I could make about stereotypical tensions between nerds and jocks, but there's science to be had at the World Cup, and I'm never one to back down from an exercise in applied physics.
If you've been watching any of the matches on TV or have any friends that are, you may have heard about the controversy centered around a popular fan item - the vuvuzela. Vuvuzelas are plastic trumpets used by soccer fans in South Africa to cheer on their team and goad the opponents. When blown, they can achieve decibel levels upwards of close to 130 dB. That's as loud as a loud rock concert or a jet at take off.
It's gotten to the point that referees and coaches want the horns banned, and fans at home are complaining that the noise is drowning out network commentary.
Now for the science. Editors at the German blog Surfpoeten have pointed out that because the horn has a simple acoustic fingerprint (tones at 233, 466, 932, and 1864 Hz), very basic filtering software can remove the vuvuzeula drone from broadcast media (original German link). This may not prevent the players on the field from having to endure the noise, but it could at least help out the estimated 125 million people watching at home (per match).
This same idea may be in use in technology you own. Noise cancelling headphones have been around for a while. They sample ambient audio around you and play an opposing wave to cancel it out. Much like with the vuvuzelas, monotone sounds such as lawnmowers and airplane engines are the easiest to block.
Courtesy Mark RyanAnyone who has ever watched a 1950s science fiction film has probably heard the eerie emanations of the electronic instrument known as the theremin. It’s that high-pitched wavering tone that usually accompanied radioactive giant insects, or flying saucers and spacemen (e.g. The Day the Earth Stood Still). It can also be heard creating the good vibrations in the Beach Boy’s song of the same name, I remember seeing Simon & Garfunkle in concert a few years back, and noticing that the instrument was used during the performance of their song The Boxer.
I don’t remember when I first became aware of the device. I suppose it was in those aforementioned sci-fi movies. The electronic instrument (the first of its kind) was created by Russian professor Leon Theremin in 1917, when he stumbled upon it while trying to construct a better radio. Theremin was also a musician and obviously saw potential in his accidental invention.
The theremin is an odd-looking thing made up of a box containing circuitry, some knobs, and two metal antennas, one straight, and the other looped. Rather than strumming, bowing or hammering strings, or blowing air into brass tubes or across reeds, the sounds of the theremin are produced by not touching it. Here’s how it works: inside the theremin’s circuitry guts, two radio frequency oscillators produce two distinct signals. It’s the mixing of these two signals in a process called heterodyning that create the theremin’s sounds. The performer stands near the unit and controls the pitch and volume by moving their hands in the vicinity of the two antennas. Generally, the left hand controls the volume over the looped antenna, and the right hand the pitch near the straight antenna, although some performers, such as virtuoso Pamelia Kurstin, reverse the antennas (I’m guessing the instrument can be constructed for both right-handed and left-handed people). Changes in pitch and volume are controlled by the performer moving his or her hands nearer or farther from their respective antenna. In Kurstin’s case, the closer her left hand moves towards the straight antenna, the higher the pitch in tone, while the farther her right hand moves from the looped antenna, the louder the volume. Musical techniques such as vibrato and staccato can be mastered and controlled by rapid hand movement,
In this TED Talk performance (which got me interested in this subject), the above-mentioned Pamelia Kurstin shows that the theremin is not limited to just special effects. She has mastered the instrument to the point of being able to create dreamy and haunting melodies, as well as simulate a walking bass line as she does in the first song, Autumn Leaves. You’ll notice Pamelia appears to be in a trance while playing the instrument, but as she explains she’s keeping as still as possible so as to not corrupt the tone production. Unintentional body movements or even her breathing can affect the tone she’s trying to produce.
The Bakken Museum of Electricity in Minneapolis has a working theremin on display that visitors can play. Making sounds on the instrument is pretty easy but making music is a completely different story. Like the human voice, the violin, or similar instruments, the theremin allows for what’s called portamento, that is the gliding between a range of tones. You’re not limited by frets or keyboards, and have to sense your way from one note to the other. If you ever get a chance to play an actual theremin you’ll realize just how difficult it is.
Courtesy William Warby
The blue morpho does. Scientists have found that this large butterfly of Central and South America has ears on its wings. These primitive ears can distinguish between the high-frequency sound of a bid singing, and the low-frequency sound of a bird flapping its wings. A singing bird is a sitting bird, and thus no threat to the morpho, but a flying bird could be attacking, and detecting those sounds tells the butterfly when to beat a slow, erratic retreat.
(Wait a minute…Blue Morpho…wasn’t he a character in Yellow Submarine Reloaded?)
Courtesy LunaDiRimmelThe hum… if you can’t hear it already, you will now, because now you know about it. And once you hear it, it will never go away. Never.
Before I go any further:
So… I hear that there’s an X-Files episode out there that’s all about this. If this is truly the case, I’d like all of you X-Filiacs reading to just bite down on your autographed Gillian Anderson coasters, and grip your David Duchovny brand Wholesome Stress Release Balls, and just deal with it for a few minutes. (So many people read my posts, I’m sure there must be at least a few thousand die-hard X-Files fans among them.) Are y’all occupied? Think about bees.
Now, for the rest of you (us): The hum.
“The hum” is a sound so low that for most of us it’s usually beyond the southern end of perception. But some people hear it. And they can’t stop hearing it. It’s a deep rumbling tone, and for some people it’s only apparent in certain locations, but to others it can be heard just about everywhere. All the time. The hum has driven people to punch through brick walls, and bite the heads off of gear shifters, because it just won’t stop. (I’m assuming about the brick punching and car biting.)
Scientists believe that the hum is actually a real sound, unlike the tones perceived by people suffering from tinnitus. Tinnitus is an inner ear disorder (and maybe sometimes psychological, which causes people to hear sounds when there’s nothing actually making that sound. The perceived sounds vary, but, in general, it’s like when your ears start ringing for no apparent reason, except that the ringing might never stop.
The hum, on the other hand, is usually perceived as something like the sound of an idling diesel engine. But while there are folks who believe that the hum is actually caused by aliens, and sinister government X-Filesy activity, most scientists believe that the hum is a combination of real sounds (not that aliens wouldn’t make real sounds, but, um…) and a sort of unintended fixation on the part of the hearer.
As this article on the BBC points out, the hum might be caused by the actual vibrations of a nearby factory, or a constantly running piece of equipment in your house, like a fan or the refrigerator. While the sound is so low and quiet that it’s usually barely on the edge of perception, if someone hears it, and focuses on it, they may not be able to make themselves stop hearing it. Once it’s on their minds, they think about how they can’t stop hearing it, and they become focused on the sound, and without intending to they end up adjusting their internal “gain” to notice that sound. Sort of like if you’re trying to be sneaky, the sounds you make seem very loud, or if you’re trying to catch someone else being sneaky, the sound of someone unlocking the front door after curfew is going to be very noticeable.
I just hope none of y’all ever notice the hum. Because what if you can’t stop thinking about it? It’ll always be there… So don’t sit back and try to hear it right now. Don’t even think about that continuous rumbling sound that might be flooding through our town now and forever.
(Oh, if you’re wondering what to listen for, the BBC article has a simulated sample of the hum that you can check out.)
Having obtained minute wood samples from restorers working on Stradivarius and Guarneri instruments, scientists now have verified that the wood was treated with borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts. Borax is a wood preservative and an insecticide. It makes sense that wood craftsmen would want to protect their creations from being chewed up by worms.
Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry, first theorized in 1976 that chemicals used on the instruments – not merely the wood and the construction – are responsible for the distinctive sound of these violins." Texas A&M University
Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry, along with Renald Guillemette, director of the electron microprobe laboratory, and Clifford Spiegelman, professor of statistics, all Texas A&M faculty members published their research in the current issue of the scientific journal Public Library of Science (PloSONE).
Courtesy Whit Welles“Hey, quiet down up there. We can’t hear a thing down here.”
No, it’s not the lament of some landlord who’s rented out the upper level apartment to a rock-and-roll loving tenant. It’s a case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court right now pitting whales off the coast of California against the U.S. Navy.
Justices heard oral arguments yesterday on the case. Environmentalists are challenging the Navy’s claim to perform training exercises along the California coast which use extensive and strong sonar transmissions. The sound waves of those sonar blasts can harm whales and other marine mammals, petitioners contend, with sounds that can be up to 2,000 times louder than a jet engine. Some scientists feel that sounds that loud can cause whales to lose hearing loss, bleed on the brain and possibly lead to mass strandings on beaches.
Courtesy Thor CarlsonThe Navy says that strong sonar level is critical to be able to detect submarines that can elude weaker modes of sonar.
Based on justices’ questions and reactions, however, it appears that court is leaning toward siding with the Navy and national security concerns.
Here’s a full report on yesterday’s court session. Justices were pretty upfront in stating their lack of expertise in mammal biology and national defense matters.
So if you had to decide on this conflict, where would you come down on this question? Does the health and a comfort of whales trump national security? Is loud sonar just an unfortunate byproduct of keeping our national interests safe? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.
Courtesy Mark WalesResidents of Naples had thoughts of Pompeii flashing through their minds yesterday when Italian F-16s flying nearby created sonic booms while flying to intercept a nearby unidentified aircraft. Residents jammed the phone lines to the city's eruption hotline.
Several million people live in areas that could be affected by Vesuvius, making it one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
Geologists predict that at least 300,000 people would be killed should Vesuvius erupt without ample warning for evacuation. A recent computer simulation used to model an eruption shows that residents to the south of Vesuvius, in the direction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, will have little chance to survive a blast like the one that buried these towns in 79 AD.