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Photo: Acoustics Research Centre /University of Salford, Manchester.
Acoustical engineer Trevor Cox works with a scale model of Stonehenge in a sound chamber.

One day last week, I was writing a letter to Brandeis admissions to help Shagufa get a bit more support for grad school, and I used a thumbnail description of this blog to explain how I met her. I said it was tied to my daughter’s jewelry company, which I always say, but then I added something I’d just thought of: “my goal is to share inspiring stories.”

Is that right, Dear Reader? These stories are not always inspiring, but I didn’t think the university would care that they were merely topics some stranger calling herself Suzanne’s Mom finds interesting. I’d be grateful for your own thumbnail description of SuzannesMomsBlog.

Today’s story is in the interesting department. (I wonder if everything interesting is by its nature also inspiring.)

Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet, “We may never fully solve all the mysteries of Stonehenge, the monumental prehistoric circle of stones built on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. But a new study suggests that it may have been designed to amplify sound in very specific ways.

“To recreate the acoustic properties of the stone circle as it was originally built around 2,500 BC, acoustics engineers at the University of Salford in Manchester constructed a 1:12 scale model they called ‘Minihenge.’ The results of their research have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“ ‘Constructing and testing the model was very time consuming, a labor of love, but it has given the most accurate insight into the prehistoric acoustics to date,’ Trevor Cox, the project’s lead researcher, said in a statement. ‘With so many stones missing or displaced, the modern acoustic of Stonehenge is very different to that in prehistory.’

“Thanks to laser scans of the site conducted by the governmental research group Historic England, Cox and his team were able to replicate the exact dimensions and precise topography of the monoliths using a computer-aided model and a 3-D printer. Missing stones were replaced where they were believed to have originally stood — 157 in all, based on the latest archaeological research.

The simulated stones were treated to replicate the acoustic properties of the site’s actual materials, allowing for more accurate results than in past models. … Researchers then tested the model, placing speakers and microphones in and around it while working at the university’s Acoustics Research Centre, which boasts a specialist acoustic chamber. (To account for the difference in scale, all sounds were 12 times their normal frequency, in the ultrasonic range.)

“The study found that people who spoke or played music inside the monument would have heard clear reverberations against the massive standing stones. Testing on the model also suggests that the stones increased the volume on interior sound, kept exterior sound out, and made it hard for anyone outside the structure to hear what was going on inside. …

“The placement of the stones was capable of amplifying the human voice by more than four decibels, but produced no echoes. Music and other sounds would have been enhanced such that someone standing within the outer circle of stones would have heard conversations from the center with perfect clarity, even as the sound was obscured to those outside. …

“While sound appears to have been an important consideration for the ancient builders, researchers still believe that astrological alignment was the primary factor in the placement of the stones. And mysteries about Stonehenge’s musical properties still abound.

“ ‘Stonehenge hums when the wind blows hard,’ musicologist Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield in England, who has previously conducted acoustic research on the site, told ScienceNews.

“There is also speculation that some of the smaller stones used in the ancient site’s construction may have been chosen for their musical qualities. Making a sound much like a metallic gong when struck, they could have been used as percussion instruments, Cox suggested in the Guardian in 2014.

“That theory was tested in a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the Royal College of Art in London, who were able to ‘play’ Stonehenge’s ringing stones like a giant xylophone in a unique form of ‘rock’ music. According to their findings, published in Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, the stones’ musical properties were likely even more pronounced in antiquity, before they were set in reinforced concrete.”

More at Artnet, here.

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Photo: Daniel A Leifheit/ Getty Images
The aurora borealis in Alaska’s Denali National Park, with a view of Orion and Jupiter.

Have you ever gotten a glimpse of the aurora borealis, maybe from an airplane? It’s something I’ve always wanted to see. My sense of the northern lights comes only from pictures and from the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, in which the electricity generated is harnessed for travel to other worlds.

In an article at the Guardian by Patrick Barkham, we learn of a different way to get a sense of the aurora borealis.

“There’s a hypnotic crackle before a whoosh of sound flies from ear to ear,” he writes. “It’s followed by a heavenly chorus that might be whales whistling, frogs calling or the chirping of an alien bird. It sounds celestial because that’s what it is. The noise is the aurora borealis: the northern lights.

“The vivid green lights that trace across the Arctic sky emit electromagnetic waves when the solar shower meets the Earth’s magnetic field, and these can be translated into sounds that are made audible to human ears by a small machine.

“These mysterious, sweeping noises are celebrated by a new Radio 3 documentary following the biologist Karin Lehmkuhl Bodony into the wilderness on her dog sleigh to record the soundscape, which has now been turned into music by an Alaskan composer.

“Bodony lives in the remote Alaskan village of Galena. She can see the lights from her porch, and 16 years ago she discovered she could also record the sound of the lights using a very low frequency (VLF) receiver.

“ ‘To hear those “whoosh-whoosh” sounds, which are so like what you see, is really special,’ she says. …

‘There are times when it’s just normal background chattery, crackly sounds and then there’ll be other times when it’s really cool – beautiful whooshing sounds and a chorus that sounds like frogs calling. If it was always the same it wouldn’t be as fun to go out and listen.’

“For Songs of the SkyRadio 3 commissioned the composer Matthew Burtner, who works with natural sounds and scientific environmental data, to make a piece of music derived from the sounds of the aurora.

“Northern lights listeners must get at least four miles away from human-made sounds and other electrical sources such as power lines to avoid interference on the VLF receivers, so Burtner had to hike into the wilds with his daughter. …

“Burtner found that the recordings from the [VLF recorder] weren’t very clear and so mapped the sounds’ frequency and amplitude profile onto a high-quality synthesiser. ‘You can then alter the timbre of the sound and have the northern lights play different instruments. That let me really orchestrate with the northern lights, using their input as a controller,’ he says. …

“Burtner created a six-minute piece that he hopes expresses the dialectic between humans and the natural world. ‘That’s what I’m always looking for in music – there’s something of the real natural system in there that’s untouched by a person.’ …

“The programme also explores the traditional meanings of the aurora borealis in the rapidly changing Arctic environment, where temperatures are rising faster than in many parts of the world.

“According to Bodony, traditional Inuit interpretations of the northern lights are often benevolent, with the lights signalling to hunters how they will find food or reassuring the bereaved that their loved ones have passed to a better place.

“But there are more sinister mythologies connected with the northern lights, which have symbolised danger in certain stories as well. ‘Our atmosphere shields us from the sun’s radiation and manages to warm the planet but not too much – it’s a shield – and this display of the northern lights is a representation of the sun’s fearsome force on our planet that could make it uninhabitable,’ says Burtner. …

“For Bodony, the perspective derived from her rural subsistence culture – and the experience of the aurora borealis – can correct the wider human attitude to the planet, which is ‘like impudent children whose parent is away and we’re destroying the house’ “

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Dana Cronin/NPR
As part of the “Sonic Succulents” exhibit at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, visitors are encouraged to touch plants and listen to what that contact sounds like.

Although inevitably preoccupied today, I always find that writing a little or even editing a little is comfortable for me. So I scrolled through the list of possible topics that I store for the blog and found one that fits my mood. It’s about listening to the sounds of plants as they grow and as we touch them.

Dana Cronin reports at National Public Radio (NPR), “There’s an old belief among farmers that on a quiet night, if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of corn growing.

“A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden proves that theory to be true.

“The exhibit, ‘Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations,’ is the artist Adrienne Adar’s vision come to life.

“Adar is a sound artist based in Los Angeles. She’s passionate about the natural world and says her goal is to show people that plants aren’t that different from us: They grow, breathe and even communicate in their own ways.

“And so, back in May, she planted a patch of corn within the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and has surrounded it with large yellow megaphones that visitors can stick their heads inside to listen to what a growing stalk sounds like.

It turns out the sound is almost extraterrestrial.

” ‘It can be a little bit meditational … children were sitting on the ground and putting their heads in the lower horns and just hanging out,’ she said. …

“Adar says she’s inspired by the work of scientists like Monica Gagliano, an ecologist at the University of Western Australia, whose research focuses in part on how plants, like animals, are sentient beings with cognitive abilities. They can learn, remember and have their own methods of communication. Gagliano has done experiments showing that plants are able to detect specific vibrational frequencies, like the sound of water, and grow toward that sound.

“Adar was fascinated with the idea that plants are sentient. In conceptualizing the exhibit, she says audio was the most effective way to get that idea across. …

” ‘If you hear something in your apartment moving, you kind of assume it’s an animal. You always think there’s an alive quality,’ she said.

“Inside the exhibit there’s a long line of potted plants, including cacti, palm plants and succulents, paired with headphones. Visitors are encouraged to touch the plants, at which point tiny microphones embedded in the planters pick up the vibrations of the touch and make it audible.

“Adar says she wants visitors to hear those sounds and realize the impact we have on plants … ‘Listen to what it feels when you touch it,’ she said. ‘So when you step on a plant … maybe next time it changes the behavior.’

“The exhibit runs through Oct. 27.”

More at NPR, here, where, for example, you can listen to the sound of corn growing.

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Do you believe in miracles? Consider the snowflake, consider the soap bubble.

Our family is big on soap bubbles in summer. Wired magazine seems to be big on soap bubbles, too, with a recent article on an installation involving bubble magic.

Kyle Vanhemert writes, “Soap is pretty ordinary stuff – until you blow a bubble with it. Then it becomes something a little bit magical, shimmering with delicate, ever-changing color. Unsurprisingly, if you shine a light through that swirling orb, it makes for a pretty incredible show.

“That’s the gist of ‘Invisible Acoustics,’ an audiovisual installation by Royal College of Art graduate Dagny Rewera. For the project, Rewera created three apparatuses that combine light, sound, and soap to spectacular effect.

“First, a wand dips itself into a pool of water, creating a wet, soapy lens. A speaker plays tones and chords, vibrating the soap, while a light projects the proceedings on the ceiling above. …

“Each of the three units is set to play a different range of frequencies, making for three distinct sets of patterns unfolding overhead.” More here.

Art: Dagny Rewera 

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Living on Earth, a national radio program produced in Somerville, Massachusetts, has interviewed an interesting guy who makes audio recordings of nature.

He may record, for example, what a woodland sounds like before a logging company comes in and what it sounds like after clear cutting. He may record the sounds of insects in trees. He says it is nearly impossible to get away from man-made sounds when recording nature.

Listening to his recordings early this morning resulted in my listening for the birds more on the walk I took later. (And I turned to see a very jubilant cardinal.)

“Few have heard the world as Bernie Krause has. Originally trained as a musician, he spent years recording the most famous musicians of the 1960s and 70s. Then he left the studio to explore the origins of music in nature. Krause has recorded wild sounds in places few have ever been or even dreamed of. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah listens in.” Listen here or read transcript.

Krause calls his field of study soundscape ecology. Here is his new book, The Great Animal Orchestra.

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