‘A Book of Noises’ Review: Sound and Sensibility

From The Wall Street Journal:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting, the physicist Ernest Rutherford supposedly said, distinguishing what he saw as the pursuit of deep principles from the accumulation of endless instances. Even those who find this smug quip tiresome—it doesn’t help that it’s probably apocryphal—would concede that Caspar Henderson’s “A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous” has a definite postal air. There’s physics here, certainly, but also bits of zoology, biology, anthropology, linguistics and geology, as well as music and literature.

Which is not to say that the book isn’t interesting or sometimes stimulating. Philately will get you somewhere. Mr. Henderson, a British journalist who is remarkably cheerful for someone who writes about environmental problems and human rights as well as science, explores in 48 short essays how sound, construed broadly, shapes the universe and the life in it, from the still-detectable “ripples” of the Big Bang to the song of nightingales.

As in Mr. Henderson’s previous books, “The Book of Barely Imagined Beings” (2012) and “A New Map of Wonders” (2017), the keynote is wonder—a secular awe at the variety and complexity of the world. “Glory be to Creation for wonky things,” one chapter begins, in a play on Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty.” Hopkins was praising “all things counter, original, spare, strange” (and the Christian God), while Mr. Henderson is talking about asymmetrical animals, such as bottom-lying flatfish that “stare up with a second eye that has yanked itself all the way round their skulls,” or certain species of owls, whose uneven ears sharpen their ability to locate sounds. To this advantage, Mr. Henderson writes, they add a beak shaped to minimize sound reflection and ears whose acuity doesn’t diminish with age. “Go, owls!” he concludes brightly.

Also praised in the “Biophony” section are amphibians (“What a piece of work is a frog. How noble in breathing, which it does through its skin”), elephants (they use their feet to “hear” vibrations in the ground) and bat echolocation (“the more one considers it, the more amazing it is”). The entries in “Cosmophony” include one on “sound in space” that contemplates how your voice would sound in the thin, cold atmosphere of Mars—quiet—and one on the ancient connections between astronomy and music. Mr. Henderson also explains “sonification,” in which scientific data is turned into sound. Though mostly an artistic experiment or public-outreach gimmick, sonification has been used for research, harnessing our ears’ ability to discern subtle changes in signals. It even allowed one astrophysicist, Wanda Díaz-Merced, to continue her career after going blind.

From “Geophony” we learn that the Northern Lights can sound like crackles, sizzles, rustles or bangs, though the idea that they sounded like anything at all was long dismissed. It takes particular atmospheric conditions to make them audible, and even then they’re barely loud enough to hear over the chatter of other tourists. Another entry, by contrast, discusses the loudest sound in recorded history (the 1883 eruption of the volcano Krakatoa, whose reverberations looped the Earth for five days) and one of the loudest ever on Earth (the Chicxulub asteroid, death knell for the dinosaurs).

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal