June 4, 2013
Yes, the big red eyes are creepy.
Not to mention the bizarre 17-years-in-the-ground, six-weeks-in-the-trees, mad-trysting-and-death cycle. And the sheer volume–billions of them are expected to before the current invasion ends. (Last weekend, I stood under a copse of trees they had taken over and, though the wind was still, every treetop was moving.)
But really what fascinates U.S. Navy scientists about the brood of cicadas now infesting large pockets of the East Coast is their mind-boggling sound–a din that can climb over 90 decibels. That’s louder than a garbage disposal, food blender or a truck 50 feet away, and almost as loud as power mower or a 737 coming in for a landing.
A team of scientists at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island has been studying cicada cacophony for several years now and this week they will present what they’ve learned at the International Congress on Acoustics in Montreal. Their goal is to see if humans can devise a way to replicate the sound.
Bring on the noise
I know what you’re thinking…why? Why try to mimic a noise that can turn a summer day into an aural beatdown?
But that’s what intrigues the Navy scientists. They’re trying to figure out how it’s possible to make a sound that loud without using much power. And they think that devices that sound like cicadas could be used for remote sensing underwater, ship-to-ship communications, maybe even rescue operations.
They know why male cicadas make the sound. It’s all about the sex. They’re vying for the attention of female cicadas. If a female makes a clicking sound with her wings, she’s interested. The researchers say that when a male gets closer to a female that has clicked her interest, the male softens his sound–the insect equivalent of going Barry White on her.
And they have a good idea of how the bugs make the sound. They’ve been able to use lasers to simultaneously measure the vibration of the insect’s “tymbals,” the ribbed membranes on both sides of a cicada’s torso. When a male seeks sex, it contorts its body and that buckling causes the membrane to click, then click again when it snaps back into place.
So why does the incessant noise sound more like a massive Star Trek phaser than a series of clicks? Because the male cicada repeats this cycle for its left and right sides about 300 to 400 times a second. That’s a lot of contorting, but it has the desired effect. And it’s loud, even with one cicada, because the creature has air sacs in its hollow abdominal cavity that amplifies the sound. It’s been compared to a hammer striking a gong.
So far, the scientists haven’t been able to replicate it. The problem is that it’s not just one moving part making the sound. The buckling of the cicada’s body isn’t uniform–its two tymbals aren’t in sync with each other. And apparently it’s the combination of those out-of-phase vibrations that creates such a deafening noise.
Ingenious…and this from a bug that spends 17 years in the ground.
Here are other revelations from this week’s acoustics conference:
- Bringing harmony to families around the world: Researchers have devised a way to have your car speakers in the back play something different from what people are hearing in the front. This new system creates “independent listening zones” by using small, modified speakers to produce directional fields of sound, and has the ability to optimize the audio signals driving each of the speakers.
- Puff up the volume: Danish jazz and rock drummer Niels Adelman-Larsen has invented a means of shape-shifting concert halls so they can provide the best reverberation for whatever kind of music is played in them. His system is made of airtight plastic foil membranes attached to the walls that can be inflated or deflated with the flip of a switch. When the membranes are inflated, the foil vibrates and that lowers the reverberation time in the hall, which makes it more suitable for rock music. Deflate the membranes and you get the long reverberation times that enrich classical music.
- Because when did a text ever steer you wrong: Soldiers in the field have to deal with auditory overload, including what info or orders might be coming in over their headphones. So Canadian researchers wanted to see if visual cues could help them focus on what they needed to know. And sure enough, the research showed that soldiers performed much better when they received text messages reinforcing what they were told over a loudspeaker.
- But beware of a powerful attraction to singing male crickets: The unique directional hearing ability of a parasitic fly has inspired scientists to design a microphone that could make hearing aids much more effective. The females of this type of fly use their auditory skills to locate singing male crickets, upon which they deposit their larvae. And that never turns out well for the crickets.
- That’s one small explanation frrr(uh) man: Researchers from Ohio State and Michigan State have come to the conclusion that Neil Armstrong’s Ohio accent may have been responsible for the confusion over what he said when he took his first steps on the moon. While just about everyone on Earth thought they heard Armstrong say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he always insisted that he said “for a man,” which would have made more sense. But the latest study points out that people in central Ohio, where Armstrong grew up, tend to blend together words like “for” and “a,” resulting in a phrase that “sounded something like ‘frrr(uh).’”
Video bonus: Watch a cicada come to life after 17 years in the ground. If you want a taste of cicada din, skip to the four-minute mark.
Video bonus bonus: Okay, these are not the 17-year cicadas. They’re from the 13-year-brood. Still, it’s worth watching David Rothenberg try to play his sax as they swarm around him.
More from Smithsonian.com
The Cicadas Are Coming and So Are the Terrifying Spores That Eat Them Alive
April 24, 2013
In one those strange twists of modern life, we were reminded last week of the power of music–at a hockey game.
It was at Boston’s TD Garden, two days after the explosions that contorted so many lives, and as singer Rene Rancourt began the Star Spangled Banner before the game between the hometown Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres, he noticed that many in the crowd were joining in. Rancourt got only as far as …”what so proudly we hailed” before he pulled the microphone away from his mouth and motioned to those in the stands to carry on. They did, in full voice, building to a stirring finish.
Yes, it would have been a powerful moment had those 17,000 people stood and cheered in unison. But they sang together, without restraint, and that moved us in a way we can’t fully comprehend.
Welcome to the pleasure center
Why is it that music can affect us in such profound ways? “Because it does” seems like a pretty good answer to me, but scientists aren’t that easy. They’ve been wrestling with this for a long time, yet it was not that long ago that two researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre, came up with an explanation, at least a physiological one.
Based on MRI scans, they found that when people listened to music they liked, the limbic and paralimbic regions of the brain became more active. They’re the areas linked to euphoric reward responses, the same ones that bring the dopamine rush associated with food, sex and drugs. (Right, so throw in rock and roll.)
Okay, but why? Why should a collection of sounds cause the brain to reward itself? That remains a bit of a mystery, but a favorite theory, proposed almost 60 years ago, posits that it’s about fulfilled expectations. Put simply, music sets up patterns that causes us to predict what will come next and when we’re right, we get a reward. Some have suggested this has its roots in primitive times when guessing wrong about animal sounds was a matter of life or death. What was needed was a quick emotional response to save our skin, rather than taking a time to think things through.
And so, the theory goes, our response to sound became a gut reaction.
And the beat goes on
The truth is we’re learning new things about music all the time. Here are eight studies published in just the past few months.
1) But can you dance to it?: Toronto researcher Valorie Salimpoor wanted to know if our strong emotional response to a song we like is due to the music itself or some personal attachment we have to it. So she had a group of people listen to 30-second samples of songs they’d never heard before, then asked them how much they’d be willing to pay for each track. And she did MRI scans of their brains while they listened. The result? When the nucleus accumbens region became active–it’s a part of the brain associated with pleasant surprises or what neuroscientists call “positive prediction errors”–they were more willing to spend money. In other words, if a song turned out better than they had expected, based on pattern recognition, they wanted more of it.
2) Drum solos not included: Two McGill University psychologists in Montreal say that soothing music can actually be more effective than Valium when it comes to relaxing people before surgery.
3) Unless their favorite song is by Metallica: And it helps even the tiniest of babies. A study at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found that when parents turned their favorite songs into lullabies and sang or played them on an instrument, it reduced stress levels in the infants and stabilized their vital signs.
4) The ultimate mind meld: Back to brain scans. Stanford neuroscientist Daniel Abrams determined that when different people listened to the same piece of music–in this case a little known symphony–their brains reflected similar patterns of activity. And those similarities were observed not just in areas of the brain linked with sound processing, but also in regions responsible for attention, memory and movement.
5) You know you love “Gangnam Style”…Ooops, sorry about that: Yes, scientists are even doing research on earworms or as most of us know them, songs that get stuck in our heads. And the latest study found that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s usually not awful songs that we can’t seem to get rid of. Most often, it’s songs we actually like, even if we don’t want to admit it. Researcher Ira Hyman also has suggestions for how to get rid of an earworm–you need to engage in a task that requires the auditory and verbal components of your working memory–say, reading a good book.
6) No language barrier here: Previous research has shown that people with a musical background are more likely to be able to learn a second language, and now a new study suggests that people who speak a language that’s tonal, such as Cantonese, may be better suited to learning music. Understanding Cantonese requires a person to master six different tones, each of which can change the meaning of words. On musical tests taken by non-musicians as part of the study, those who spoke Cantonese scored 20 percent higher than English-speaking participants who didn’t play music.
7) Some day you’ll thank me for this, kid: A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training before the age of seven can have a major effect on brain development. Those who learned how to play chords at an early age tend to have stronger connections between the motor regions of their brains.
8) Say what?: So loud music may not ruin your hearing after all. At least that’s the conclusion of New South Wales scientist Gary Houseley, who says his research showed that loud music causes hearing to diminish for only about 12 hours. His study was able to demonstrate that when sound levels rise, the inner ear releases a hormone which reduces the amount of sound transmitted by the ear hair’s cells. That reduces our hearing sensitivity for a while, but it also keeps our ears from being permanently damaged.
Video bonus: Then there are the people who can improvise music. Researcher Charles Limb took a look inside their brains.
More from Smithsonian.com
January 17, 2012
Most innovators aren’t inventors. We were reminded of that again last year during the swirl of coverage of Steve Jobs, who achieved his godlike status largely through his unique ability to distill, refine and, above all, execute the ideas of others. As the new year begins to pick up speed, it’s a good time to take a look at some young entrepreneurs whose innovative thinking, rather than pure invention, has them poised for big things in 2012.
Can’t stop the music: The recording industry has been in a death spiral for awhile now, dating back to when Napster fed the notion among a generation that freedom to download music without paying is an inalienable right laid out in the Constitution, or maybe it was the Magna Carta. Whatever. Bottom line is that CDs are going the way of the 8-track. But all may not be lost, thanks to a Swedish computer geek-turned-musician-turned-Internet-innovator. That would be Daniel Ek, who launched Spotify in Europe three years ago when he was 25.
Earlier this month Forbes magazine called him “the most important man in music.” That’s probably over the top, but Ek has devised a model that provides instant access to free music while pumping up struggling record labels through licensing fees. Spotify, which makes its money through advertising and user fees ($10 a month for mobile access to your playlists, $5 a month to avoid ads), didn’t roll out in the U.S. until last summer, but raised its profile dramatically a few months later when it hooked up with Facebook. Ek knows that building a personal brand is a subtext of the Facebook experience and a person’s taste in music is often a big part of that. So now, through Spotify, Facebook users see the songs their friends listen to and the playlists they compile, and with a single click, can give a listen. If Spotify goes mainstream in the U.S. this year, Forbes just may be right.
Return of the pin-ups: Often the shrewdest innovations are about carving out the right niche at the right time and so it appears to be with Pinterest, the hot social network of the moment. As someone who says he was a “maniacal” insect collector while growing up in Iowa, co-founder Ben Silbermann realized how passionate people can be about their hobbies or collections. And he and his partners, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra, also recognized that posting photos has become as popular a means of self-expression on social networks as clever status updates and funny video links. So they combined passions and photos in Pinterest, where members can “pin” up pictures–their own or ones found on the Web–of their hobbies or just quirky obsessions. They could be muscle cars or Amish quilts or Halloween costumes made of duct tape. Hey, it’s your show. Yes, a year from now Pinterest could be yet another Web sensation gone south. But some analysts are already saying it’s worth more than $150 million.
Power play: Wind and solar energy are clearly appealing alternatives to 50-year-old coal-powered plants pumping out pollutants. But clean energy sources still face a big hurdle: If the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining, how do you keep the lights on? That’s the key to wind and solar becoming core components of the power grid and it’s why a lot of researchers are trying to find ways to cheaply and efficiently store energy that comes from renewable sources. Danielle Fong, chief scientist for an California company called LightSail Energy, is focusing on a process in which wind and solar power would be converted to compressed air. Then, when needed, it could be expanded to drive turbines that support the power grid. Fong’s only 24, but based on her credentials, you have to think that she has as good a shot as anyone at solving this one. At the age of 12 she was taking college-level physics sources; at 17, she was studying nuclear fusion at Princeton.
Copy that: It’s easy to get carried away with the potential of 3-D printers. Imagine being able to download specs for a part you need, then printing it out in your home office. Or have your kids or grandkids use it to build toys they designed themselves. The reality, though, is that it’s likely to be years, maybe even a decade, before they’re as common as PCs in our homes. But if it does happen sooner rather than later, Bre Pettis and MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based outfit he heads as CEO, will have a lot to do with it. They’ve brought the cost of 3-D printers down to about $1,000 and just last week unveiled the MakerBot Duplicator, which prints objects in two colors. But for Pettis, it’s not just about building a business; he once was a teacher and one of his dreams is to bring 3-D printers into the classroom where they can really tap into kids’ creativity.
When cheese says cheese: If most of us had seen what Alexa Andrzejewski did a few years ago while visiting Japan and South Korea, we probably would have dismissed it as slightly bizarre dining behavior and gone back to our meal we couldn’t pronounce. But Andrzejewski, a one-time graphic designer, thought there was something to it. What she saw was people taking pictures of their meals with their cell phones. She first thought about doing a picture book of exotic meals. But she ultimately concluded that she may have found a way to differentiate a business from all of the restaurant mobile apps out there. Why not provide diner reviews of specific meals and build them around photos of the food so people could see what they’d be ordering.
That was the genesis of Foodspotting, a mobile app that shows you pictures of meals that are near where you are at the moment. Or as Andrzejewki puts it, it’s like gazing at the windows of a bakery, except you’re staring at your phone. Now the company is looking for ways to build its business by partnering with apps that let diners know about deals and working with restaurants that want to promote their specials. It also plans to release a new version of its app, one that suggests nearby meals based on your preferences.
Thanks for sharing: The latest estimates are that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Already, 21 mega-cities have populations of 10 to 20 million. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re going to need some pretty innovative thinking about urban life over the next decade if we’re going to keep cities liveable. One person who’s been giving this a lot of thought is Alex Steffen. He’s the author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide For the 21st Century, which was updated last year. He’s also been called a futurist and he is, but in a practical way. Steffen’s very big, for instance, on the growth of a culture within cities where people share instead of own, whether it’s cars, sports equipment or power drills. He also knows that it’s going to take a lot more than putting plants and trees on rooftops to make cities sustainable and keep them from, as he puts it, “stealing the future.”
Good reads: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention other bloggers worth watching this year because of their insightful takes on all things innovative, starting with Dominic Basulto, who works at Electric Artists in New York, but whose writing appears regularly at at Ideas@Innovation at WashingtonPost.com and at BigThink.com. Another deserving a visit is David Dobbs’ “Neuron Culture“ blog for Wired.com. And to stay on top of the latest tech, stop by when you can at the “Bits” blog on the New York Times website.
Video Bonus: Salman Khan has made a big splash with his Khan Academy, built around low-tech, conversational educational videos. Check out his TED Talk from last year on using video to reinvent education.
August 31, 2011
Curl up with your iPad and start reading Gone with the Wind—go with me on this for a minute—and as you visualize Scarlett O’ Hara gliding across the room, you actually can hear the swish of her petticoats.
Or you’re plowing through The Da Vinci Code and suddenly you’re jolted by the two-note whine of Paris police sirens.
As disorienting as it may seem, the experience of reading to a soundtrack took a big leap forward last week with the launch of a new software application called Booktrack. The company, with a U.S. office in New York City, is about to start rolling out versions of e-books that come not only with music but also sound effects synched to the story line—a ticking clock here, a gunshot there and just like that, you’re multi-sensing. Booktrack files currently work on Apple devices and should be available on Android devices soon.
How does the book know when to fire the gun? It reads your mind. Almost. By calculating your reading speed from when you turn the page, it gauges when you’ll reach the word or group of words that trips a sound effect. For slow readers, the background music plays on a loop, idling euphoniously, until you get to one of the trigger words.
To show this isn’t some forever-in-beta bagatelle, Salman Rushdie, the Pulitzer Prize winner himself, was at the Booktrack launch party in New York. His short story “In the South” will be available with a soundtrack this fall. So will Jay McInerney’s “Solace.”
Plenty of classics will be getting the Booktrack treatment, perhaps with the notion that people will give the golden oldies another go if this time they come with music. Coming soon are sound-spiced versions of Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan, The Three Musketeers, Pride and Prejudice, even Romeo and Juliet. (Hear those swords clanging? )
Let’s face it, though—this is not a product for those for whom a book is an experience in quiet immersion. Most likely Booktrack ultimately will be popular with the generation of people who can read/listen to a book while texting friends, watching “The Office” on Hulu and hacking into the Pentagon.
It’s no accident the first title available on Booktrack is a young adult, science fiction novel, The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore (aka James Frey). iTunes sells the Booktrack version for $12.99 and the ordinary e-book for $9.99.
Actually, a lot of innovative things are happening with sound these days. Here are a few of the latest:
- Pump up the volume: Orange, the French telecom company, has created a T-shirt that builds up enough energy through ambient sound to charge a smart phone. The shirt has sheets of piezoelectric film—the same thing you find in speakers—which can convert sound waves to enough current to charge a phone. The downside: Right now, you’d have to stand along a noisy city street to generate enough juice.
- You again: Apple has applied for a patent for software that would allow your iPhone to recognize your voice.
- Noises off: Researchers in Spain have developed a prototype of an “acoustic cloak” that eliminates noise.
- Talk to the pants: MIT scientists have created plastic fibers that can detect and produce sounds. They can be used to make clothes that act as a microphone.
Video bonus: A little old-school sound show featuring the lyrebird, which not only can mimic other birds, but also new sounds in the jungle, including a camera with a motor drive and strangely enough, a chainsaw.
What book do you think would be better with Booktrack treatment? Personally, I think the pitter-patter of hobbit feet would add a little something to Lord of the Rings.