Sonic Assassins

russiawave

In a developing mystery, Associated Press is reporting that US diplomats stationed in Cuba are complaining about ‘health attacks’ which appear to be linked to some kind of odd sound phenomenon. The incidents have taken place both in the homes of the diplomats and in hotels, and are said to be “confined to specific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser-like specificity”. One victim reported experiencing the ‘agonizing’ sound only in his bed; when he walked to the other side of his bedroom, it was completely absent.

“In several episodes recounted by U.S. officials, victims knew it was happening in real time, and there were strong indications of a sonic attack.”

The episodes seem to take the form of “vibrations and loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas” and a “blaring, grinding noise”. So far, doctors have examined 21 affected Americans, diagnosing them with mild traumatic brain injury (or concussion) and permanent hearing loss. Some victims now have problems concentrating or recalling specific words, and other symptoms include brain swelling, dizziness, nausea, severe headaches, balance problems and tinnitus, or prolonged ringing in the ears.

Puzzlingly, some people have reported some of the symptoms, but have not heard unusual sounds of any kind.

Speculations that some kind of ‘sonic weapon’ has been brought to bear are hard to substantiate. Devices that might cause these kinds of effects using only sound are not known to exist, and even if they did, they would be large and require a considerable amount of power – not the kind of thing you could sneak into someone’s house unnoticed.

“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” said Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and authority on focussed sound technology. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”

So what’s going on? Have malevolent anti-US agencies discovered a new quirk of physics that they’ve deployed into a frightening sonic brain laser? Is it a manifestation of collective obsessional behavior? Or is there some more mundane explanation that has yet to be uncovered?

Stay tuned, we’ll keep our fingers on the pulse of this one.

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The Sound of Silence

saturn2

In two days, as of this writing, one of the greatest scientific adventures of all time will come to a close. I am, of course, talking about NASA’s extraordinary Cassini mission. Launched amid controversy* in 1997, and arriving at Saturn in 2004, Cassini’s primary mission was to observe the ringed planet and its moons for 4 years. It exceeded expectations, and after completing its main objectives, continued to return groundbreaking science for almost a further two decades. Now, its power supply is reaching depletion, and the mission team have decided to terminate the life of the spacecraft while they still have it under their control. To avoid the unlikely – but still possible – contamination of Saturn’s water-bearing moon Enceladus by Earth microbes that may have hitched a ride on the vehicle, its orbit has been changed to plunge it into Saturn’s atmosphere at an oblique angle on September 15. It will be incinerated in seconds.

Anyone with an ounce of imagination can’t fail to have been awestruck by the amazing high definition real-colour images that Cassini has beamed back from the edges of Saturn’s rings. We’ve also marvelled at the many extraordinary hidden features revealed by the craft’s ability to see into the infrared and ultraviolet.

Something that is less known, however, is that Cassini also captured many of the sounds of Saturn and its moons.

cassinisound1

Now, there is no sound in space, as we all know, since there’s no atmosphere to conduct it, and Saturn’s ‘sounds’ are actually not the kinds of things we could hear with our ears anyway; they are formed from magnetic fields, and from radio and plasma waves captured by Cassini’s magnetometer and RPWS (Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument). In order to make them audible to a human ear, the mission scientists have taken these very high frequency emissions and dropped them down in pitch to bring them into the audible spectrum, and then time compressed them, so that events that happen over many minutes or hours, are revealed in seconds.

You should not think this is a fanciful pursuit, undertaken by geeks in order for the audio nerds to boast as much as the imaging team. Instead of being merely quirky, sound recordings made in this way can actually reveal useful data about Saturn that cannot be ‘visualised’. We know, for example, that Saturn’s auroras sound similar to the auroras of Earth when rendered in this manner, as do lightning storms. These ‘sped-up’ sound snapshots also provide insights into the rotation of the planet and the movements of its moons that cannot be easily grasped in other ways.

You can hear some of the strange and beautiful sounds of Saturn here, along with a few musical works made by composers inspired by them.

One thing I should note is that there was, in fact, some ‘human audible’ sound returned from the Cassini mission, and that happened quite soon after the spacecraft’s arrival in the Saturn system in 2004. As Cassini passed Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, it launched its probe Huygens down to that world. Because Titan actually does have an atmosphere, Huygens was fitted with microphones designed to capture actual audio frequencies. If you’d been on that probe, this is what your human ears would have heard.

In two days, Cassini will go silent. In spite of all the astonishing visual material that Cassini has beamed back to us over the decades, we will still use a sound metaphor to convey the idea that communication from it has forever ceased.


*Cassini is powered by a nuclear power source fuelled by plutonium-238. At the time of its launch, people who didn’t really know much about science freaked out about this for reasons that are hard to understand.

It’s Just Not Crickets

I’ve noticed that a rather old piece of ‘science’ trivia is floating around the social feeds again, and I thought this might be a good Hummadruz opportunity to dispel the myths surrounding it once and for all.

The story is this (as reported breathlessly on many incredulous sites but in this case we’ll be using text from truthseekerdaily.com):

Composer Jim Wilson has recorded the sound of crickets and then slowed down the recording, revealing something so amazing. The crickets sound like they are singing the most angelic chorus in perfect harmony. Though it sounds like human voices, everything you hear in the recording is the crickets themselves.

Here’s a version of the the recording on Soundcloud:

What you’re hearing is the supposed slowed down crickets, with the original speed crickets layered over the top. It certainly does sound eerie and somewhat choral. Amazing huh? The reportage of this phenomenon is frequently accompanied by this endorsement by Tom Waits:

Tom Waits (on Jim Wilson): “Wilson, he’s always playing with time. I heard a recording recently of crickets slowed way down. It sounds like a choir, it sounds like angel music. Something sparkling, celestial with full harmony and bass parts – you wouldn’t believe it. It’s like a sweeping chorus of heaven, and it’s just slowed down, they didn’t manipulate the tape at all. So I think when Wilson slows people down, it gives you a chance to watch them moving through space. And there’s something to be said for slowing down the world.”

The hyperbole that goes with the piece almost invariably makes much of the claim that the slowed down crickets are not altered in any way apart from the direct change in pitch, but is such a claim believable?

As a professional sound designer and composer of nearly 40 years experience, I’ve had a quite a bit to do with the sounds of crickets in my time. I’ve composed several works comprised of manipulated insect and bird sounds, and I’ve spent many long hours on numerous projects building unusual atmospherics from crickets and frogs. I know cricket sounds better than most people on the planet.

And the sounds in that clip from Jim Wilson don’t sound like merely slowed-down crickets to me. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. Let’s do some science!

Since the clip includes the sounds of crickets running at normal speed layered over the top of the slow ones, then it follows that we could just slow the whole thing down again and get the same effect, right? The low crickets would drop right down out of audible range, but the normal speed crickets would themselves become the magical choir sounds. So let’s try it:

Hmm. Just a single low tone. No three part harmonies there, nor any beautiful modal intervals like in the Jim Wilson version. To me this is not so surprising, because I’ve used this technique a thousand times – slowing crickets down inevitably delivers you a single tonal version of the original. Sometimes you might get rhythmic pulsing, or grinding noises, but that’s about it, and it’s always at one constant pitch.

If you know anything about how crickets make their sounds, none of this will be  surprising to you either. Like most insects that generate some kind of chirruping or rasping or droning sound, crickets use a mechanism called stridulation to create their loud noise. This is one of the most basic ways that a sound can be generated: friction of one body part rubbing on another creates vibration. It’s essentially a variation on the effect you get by running your fingernails up and down a washboard.

Insects can achieve stridulation in a variety of ways, but in nearly all cases, they will, through limits of their anatomy, achieve just one basic pitch, or ‘note’ – just as we’ve seen in the slowed-down example above. For them to be yielding complex melodic structures like those in the Jim Wilson track, requires an explanation that I’m sure you will find as irksome as I do: that different crickets are making different pitches and that they’re then co-operating to create choral masterworks in human melodic modes. Specifically in Western liturgical scales, at that. If that’s what’s going on here, then there are at least a half dozen major scientific discoveries waiting for an enterprising biologist to claim.

The truth is well to the contrary. When you hear insects making noise, they’re far from being co-operative. They have no interest at all in harmonising with their pals to sing the glory of God. They are in fact competing with one another. Aggressively. For sex. The loudest and most impressive gets the prize. That is all.

So, how do we explain, then, the eerie vocal harmonising in the Jim Wilson recordings? In my opinion, as a composer and performer who is very accomplished in these techniques, the answer is completely obvious. The simple, single note tonal drones of crickets lend themselves perfectly to being raw material for a popular modern instrument: the sampler. With a music sampler, a sound can be tuned across the musical scale in such a way that it can be played on any note desired. I believe that Jim Wilson has taken the monotonal cricket sounds as his basic building blocks and then played whatever melodies and harmonies he wanted with them.

There’s nothing wrong with doing any of that, of course – there have been some wonderful musical explorations of this idea – but to promote it as some unexplained natural phenomenon with supernatural overtones is at least irrational, or at worst, exploitative.* And disappointingly human-centric.

The unadorned sounds of the natural world are beautiful in their own right and there is really no need to invoke human notions of value for them to be emotionally powerful. Learn to listen to those sounds for what they are. Here is a good starting point: the wonderful natural recordings of my good friend Andrew Skeoch through Listening Earth.


*Jim Wilson sells these recordings under the title ‘God’s Chorus of Crickets’. It is important to note that he himself does not anywhere make the claim that the recordings are just slowed down. To the contrary, these are his own words: “I discovered that when I slowed down this recording to various levels, this simple familiar sound began to morph into something very mystic and complex...”  The ‘various levels’ he’s talking about are chromatically tuned intervals. But he’s certainly not – as far as I’ve seen in my broad investigations – actively contradicting the numerous sites that claim the sounds have not been manipulated.

By the Numbers

Today on Hummadruz we’re going to look at the mysterious phenomenon known as Numbers Stations: radio beacons that broadcast strange shortwave radio transmissions that consist of strings of numbers read in sequence and usually identified at the start with some kind of audio ‘logo’ such as a sound or a piece of music. No-one really knows the purpose of Numbers Stations (well, I say ‘no-one’ – obviously someone does), but it is likely that they are used to send coded messages from government security agencies to their undercover operatives out in the field. In other words, this is spy stuff. It is thought that the first Numbers Stations started up shortly after World War 1, and it is certain that there were many operating after World War 2 and throughout the Cold War.

The most well-known of the Numbers Stations is probably The Lincolnshire Poacher, so called because of its use of the folk song of that name as its identifier.

Audio link: The Lincolnshire Poacher

The Lincolnshire Poacher was a very powerful shortwave broadcaster, purportedly operated by Britain’s MI6 out of Cyprus. It had a similarly powerful sister station called Cherry Ripe which was believed to be in Australia.

Audio link: Cherry Ripe

Both these stations ceased broadcast around 2008/2009, but there are still dozens of Numbers Stations in operation, especially in Eastern Europe and South America. The mysterious repeated sets of numbers are almost certainly a type of code, most likely a system called a ‘one-time pad‘. A one-time pad code is completely uncrackable if the people employing it stick to the strict protocol. Short wave radio is an ideal method for transmitting the information, due to its long reach, and the relatively low tech and easy availability of portable shortwave receivers.

Some Numbers Stations use a type of phonetic alphabet system that can result in a very surreal effect. Here’s a station called Nancy Adam Susan:

Audio link: Nancy Adam Susan

The robotic hypnotic quality of the echoic female voice reciting names over and over seems to me much more disconcerting than the EVP phenomenon that we talked about recently on Hummadruz. Here’s perhaps the creepiest of all the currently broadcasting Numbers Stations, dubbed Swedish Rhapsody (the name of the melody):

Audio link: Swedish Rhapsody

The tinkly music box tune and the sampled voice of a young girl are surely the stuff of radio nightmares. One of the most fascinating things about these Numbers Stations is that on a purely aural level they are evocative and intriguing, and speak of a Cold War era that is surely fading as we move into the world of high speed internet and digital encryption. If you’d like to hear some more of these strange radio relics, there’s a substantial collection of recordings here on archive.org – these are part of The Conet Project which is available through Irdial Discs. Irdial also makes the entire collection available for free as mp3s.

Horses Don’t Think

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia – the tendency of the human brain to try to make sense of random visual information by forming it into something we recognize (like the face of Jesus on a tortilla or a likeness of Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun). Today on Hummadruz we’re going to look at an aural version of pareidolia which goes under the name of Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP.

EVP is the term given for the appearance of strange, indistinct human voices on previously recorded magnetic tape – voices that supposedly weren’t there when the original recording was made.

This phenomenon was first ‘discovered’ by Attila von Szalay, in the early 1940s. Von Szalay was a ‘ghost’ photographer and was looking for some additional corroboration of his belief in a spirit world. After making recordings of ‘silence’ on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, von Szalay claimed to have captured voices on his tapes, voices that he believed belonged to people who had died. With psychic researcher Raymond Bayless, he published his findings in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1959.

In that same year, philosopher, film producer and birdwatcher Friedrich Jürgenson had made some recordings of bird sounds in the backyard of his Swedish house. On playing back those recordings, Jürgenson became convinced that they contained the voices of his deceased father and wife speaking to him, and he published his experiences in a book: Voices from Space. A few years later, Latvian author Konstantīns Raudive read Jürgenson’s book and, intrigued, contacted him. The two men began to make recordings of the ‘voices’ and compiled an astonishing 100,000 of them, which Raudive went on to document in his 1968 book Unhörbares wird hörbar (“What is inaudible becomes audible”), later published in English in 1971 as Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead. Over the course of their experiments, Jürgenson and Raudive became completely convinced that these faint voices that appeared in the etheric hiss of the magnetic tape were nothing less than the spirits of the dead attempting to make contact with us living folk. Furthermore, the two men were of the mind that they could actually communicate with these spirits by asking questions and then leaving pauses in which the voices might answer.

I have an original copy of Breakthrough. It is, I have to say, pretty much unreadable. A small portion of the book is given over to explanations of how the spirit voices are captured and to rambling accounts, daft philosophizing and pseudo-scientific jargon about the voices and hypnosis and psychology and acoustics and all manner of other abstruse matters.

The larger part of the book consists of transcripts of what the voices had to say. The thing that becomes apparent very quickly on reading them is that if these really are the spirits of the dead trying to communicate with us, then the dear departed have either all gone completely bonkers, or only the lunatics among them are bothering to keep in contact. To make things even more crazy, the messages Raudive and Jürgenson received were also polylingual, with the ‘spirits’ sometimes speaking in German, sometimes French, Swedish or Russian, and sometimes in Raudive’s own Latvian tongue. Often they alternated language on every second word. Here are just a smattering of the things the spirits wanted Raudive to know (you can read the interminable babbling of the spirits for yourself here, should you care to):

Nedoma zirgi (Horses don’t think)

Matei sip galva (Mother has a headache)

Tada flickes nakti (Such a girl at night!)

Golva! Golvas nav! Konstantin, Konstantin, esmu ar tevi vienmer (Head! No head! Konstantin, Konstantin, I am always with you)

Vi koordinati (We are co-ordinated)

Ka tu skrini var tupet? Furchtbar tu dzer, muns Koste! (How can you hover in the cupboard? You drink terribly, my Koste!)

Kosta, van, pietiek ar muziku (Kosta, friend, it is sufficient with the music)

Nomierinies, te Erde oben (Calm yourself; up here is the earth)

…and on and on and on for hundreds of pages with thousands of other incomprehensible and/or dreary snippets. The voices seem entirely incapable of stringing together more that about a half a dozen words into any semblence of coherence. Frankly, if you accept that EVP has any credibility at all, the afterlife comes across as some kind of huge dull and sprawling cocktail party filled with the kind of people you’d step in front of buses to avoid. All on acid.

I know you’re dying to hear some examples of what I’m talking about, so here are some clips from recordings made in the 1970s by EVP researcher Raymond Cass, who is a well known figure among the EVP community, and whose recordings have been collected in recent times on the CD The Ghost Orchid. In each these examples, Mr Cass tells you what you should be hearing. Now go to another page on the same site and see if you can figure out what any of these voices are saying.

As quaint as it all sounds, EVP is not merely an archaic remnant of fin de siecle spiritualism. There are numerous EVP societies still in existence, some even progressing on from analog magnetic tape methodology to embrace new media such as digital audio recording and computer technology. In addition, the phenomenon appears in popular culture from time to time, such as in the film White Noise (where it formed the basis for a lot of extra silliness) and in tv shows such as Fact or Faked. Paranormal Files (where it is invoked to provide silliness in its own right). And, of course, the wonderful eclectic ramble of the internet has seen to it that EVP, like so many other misguided interpretations of the world, continues to have some traction among the less rationally minded.

The mechanisms for recording EVP vary considerably, but they all basically boil down to one thing – getting a recording of something that has a vague enough informational content to allow the listener to impose a personal interpretation on it. Mostly this is done by creating a recording that has a very high noise floor. In audio terms, noise manifests as an evenly distributed amount of random audio information – you would be familiar with it as the sound you hear along with the static that you see on a tv screen that isn’t tuned to a channel. In early EVP recordings, this kind of sound was quite likely to occur on a recording because in those days electronic sound equipment was much more prone to high levels of system interference and tape noise than today. An early EVP researcher might typically proceed by making a recording with a microphone in a sealed cabinet in a quiet room, or even by dispensing with the microphone entirely and simply setting the recorder running with the gain turned up high. This would pretty much ensure plenty of wide bandwidth noise in the end result, along with the amplification of any electrical hums, buzzes, whines and static that can easily be induced in these old electronic systems.

The application of this kind of technique in the late 1940s and early 1950s coincided with another helpful element for EVP: the rise of radio broadcasting. When these old tape machines were recording with the gain turned right up, there was a very high likelihood that they might pick up and amplify extraneous radio signals. These faint signals – in those days more often than not consisting of  spoken word – would wax and wane under the threshhold of the noise floor and background hum and voila! – on listening back to the ‘blank’ tape: ‘spirit’ voices.

The funny thing is, to me this seems so obviously all that is happening that it’s hard to understand how anyone can think it’s anything else, but in the ’40s and ’50s (and being generous, even in the early ’60s) I’m willing to accept that it possibly could have seemed more mysterious. These days, though, with the explanation readily at hand and easily demonstrated, it’s perplexing that anyone can still maintain a belief that EVP is any kind of communication from the spirit world. There are so many questions that must be answered before Occam’s Razor can be blunted here: Why are the spirit voices always so indistinct and their words so open to interpretation? How is it that they sound so much like snippets from terrestrial radio broadcasts? Why do they speak in platitudes and non-sequiturs and can hardly ever manage a  sensible or meaningful sentence? In short, why do they seem so much more like the vague dissemblings of spirit mediums and the abstruse meanderings of astrologers than concise communications from sentient beings? Even if we accept that the vague vocal mutterings are from spirits of the dead, what is the point of talking to them if they make no sense?

Like many matters of pseudoscience and superstition, most of the EVP phenomenon comes down to the peculiar psychology of the human brain. There is no doubt that practitioners and exponents of EVP want their recordings to be evidence of life after death. This powerful influence sways their judgement in such a way that the phenomena of pareidolia (discerning patterns in randomness) and apophenia (finding significance in unconnected and meaningless events) conspire to provide, for them, persuasive evidence for their already-formed beliefs, even in the face of a much more likely and scientifically demonstrable explanation.

This will become a core theme of the matters we will go on to examine in Hummadruz, there is no doubt.

Fish or Foul or Fantasy?

As promised in the last post, today I’m putting forward my three best hypotheses for a solution to the mystery behind the West Seattle Hum. They’re ranked in what I consider the most likely order of plausibility, from least to most

Disclaimer: I see some people from Seattle are visiting. I should make it clear that I live in Australia and my speculations on this matter are based on my readings of the West Seattle blogs & forums, on researching of map data and tide and astronomical tables, and on my expertise as a professional sound worker. I have tried to be as accurate as I can, but am open to any corrections of errors or omissions that I may have made.

The Cause of the Hum: Speculation #1

The map I made in the last post throws up one element that might give us a clue to what’s going on with the Hum: some indication for direction of the origin of the sound. A direction, if it can be established, would indicate a point source that could be tracked down. The directional information on my map, slight as it might be, indicates a source position which would tally closely with the location of the Lafarge gypsum works & shipping yards on the Duwamish river, which was suggested by numerous commenters as a likely candidate for the Hum. It is extremely possible that some piece of machinery – a fan, an air conditioner or an electrical transformer perhaps – could make a noise like that recorded by Julie Schickling. According to the West Seattle blog, when Lafarge was approached about the sound, a representative from the company didn’t dismiss out of hand the idea that the Hum might be coming from them, but said also that they had no idea what it might be. It seems to me that a loud point source would be reasonably easy to locate though, and at least one commenter who followed this line of enquiry seems certain that the Lafarge plant is the culprit:

‘We finally were fed up with the infernal noise and went out to look for it. From Highpoint to Highland Park to South Seattle Community College to Pigeon Point and then finally West Marginal. The noise is clearly coming from the Lafarge Cement plant.’ ~ said R0b0, on the forums

But another resident, on attempting to track it down noted that the noise diminished as she approached the plant and seemed instead louder downriver to the South:

‘We did drive down a couple of nights ago to try and find it and we thought it might be coming from a ship that was moored off the Northland pier on the Duwamish…. We did drive further north toward the cement plant, but it seemed quieter there.’ ~ said Kay K

A few commenters on the West Seattle blog and the forums suggest they will make a video of the Lafarge plant to demonstrate their convictions, but so far no such video corroboration has materialized. Since this would seem to be an extremely easy thing to accomplish given the proliferation of phones & cameras with video capability, the absence of any such evidence (which one would think might be quite unequivocal) is puzzling.

If the Hum is a mechanically generated sound, though, the biggest question is how it might be heard right across West Seattle without the point source being deafening. And not just heard, but heard loudly in places as far away as Lincoln Park. Radiated sound, under normal circumstance, is a pretty straightforward thing. Soundwave radiation follows the Inverse Square Law, which says that the intensity of a sound is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source. Using this law we can quite easily calculate how loud a sound would be at Lincoln Park if generated at Lafarge. If we assume that the original sound is 115 decibels, which is VERY loud (around the kind of level you might experience at a loud rock concert) then by the time it traverses the 4.5k (3 miles) to Lincoln park, it has decreased to 42 decibels. That’s really quiet – somewhere between a subdued conversation and a whisper. That’s also assuming that there’s nothing in the way – that is, there would need to be a direct line of site between Lincoln Park and the Lafarge plant to get that even that meagre level of sound. I can tell easily from looking at the Google terrain map that this is not the case. I think I could confidently say that under normal circumstances, a resident in Lincoln Park could not hear sounds emanating from the Lafarge area. To add to the problem, for people living closer to Lafarge, there would be no question whatsoever about the location of a noise of 115db (just like you would know without a shadow of a doubt if there was a rock concert happening at the end of your street).

As bad as this looks for the hypothesis that the sound comes from the cement works, there is in fact an explanation that might come some way towards creating a plausible mechanism that could carry the sound across West Seattle.

If the conditions over the area are such that, on the mild, clear nights, an inversion layer forms, it is entirely possible that sound travelling up from somewhere in the direction of the Lafarge plant could be reflected back down into the suburbs. Inversion layers are much more likely to form in the early hours of the morning as the surface temperature cools, so this would suggest the Hum should be heard well after midnight – probably around 2 – 4am. This does fit with many of the reports on the West Seattle blog. Obscure kinds of atmospheric effects could also be at work, amplifying the sound in odd and uneven ways across the district.

This scenario would further help to explain the diffuse, directionless nature of the sound and you could also reasonably expect similar kinds of phasing and beating effects to Ms Schickling’s recording. Additionally, it would be in keeping with the drifting in volume effects noticeable on that recording.

But I reiterate – this explanation requires a substantially loud point source which would not be that difficult to locate with a decibel meter and and even mildly determined effort.

The Cause of the Hum: Speculation #2

In the NPR story that I mentioned last post, Dr. Andy Bass, from Cornell University, tells listeners that when Midshipman fish are mating:

Individual males build a territory, if you will, under a rock shelter. And from that rocky shelter, they produce that hum advertisement call to attract females to their nest.

In the YouTube video in the last post, that behaviour is clearly observable: the fish is taking a position in a hollow under a ledge and making its noise. From an acoustic point of view there is a compelling reason it might want to do this – a small cave under a rock would provide a kind of resonant cavity with a soundboard, helping to amplify its calls. Now, I’m certainly not an expert on the Midshipman fish, but let’s suppose that, like insects or frogs, the individual that makes the loudest sound has the best chance of attracting a mate. We would, therefore, have a situation driven by evolution where the Midshipman fish actively seeks out places that help amplify its sound. And each generation would tend to favour the fish that gets louder. So what we would have is a two kinds of evolutionary pressure at work – one on the fish’s physiology, and the other -significantly I think – on its behaviour. In the natural world, this is going to be a kind of self-regulating mechanism, since a fish only needs to be louder than the next loudest fish and no more – it’s a balance between loudness and energy expenditure and locating the most effective rock ledge available. Around Seattle, though, the fish has extra competition: boats, ferries, industrial racket – all possibly creating sounds of a similar nature to its own mating call. So a Midshipman fish quite conceivably faces an evolutionary imperative to outcompete human-made sounds in addition to the calls of other Midshipman fish.

If this is the case – and I think it’s a supposition on par with the same phenomenon being recorded with birds – then humans may have provided a problem for the Midshipman fish around West Seattle. As luck would have it, though, I think humans may have also been the engineers of a solution to the fish’s problem, and the creators of a new one of their own.

I have only been to Seattle once, in transit, so I can’t say I’m familiar with the city at all. But right now I’d just love to go to the Lafarge container dock on the Duwamish and take a look at it. I’m betting that underneath those big landings that flank the river, are hundreds of  nooks and crannies with cavities and sounding boards – Midshipman fish heaven. Better than rock, they’d be roofed with wood and concrete and metal, materials that resonate in an excellent fashion, given favourable frequencies.

I want to remind you of a few of comments I featured from the West Seattle blog in the previous post:

‘I’m familiar with this noise too and think it is coming from the sewers. Next time you hear it go to a storm drain and see if it is louder’ ~ said mmd.

‘What’s weird is it sounds loud inside and when you walk out it seems quieter’ ~ said DRW 

‘Reminds me of a didgeridoo…’ ~ said steph

‘Seems to change pitch/intensity in a slow rolling pattern, makes me wonder if we’re hearing an interference pattern between multiple sources.’ ~ said ben

When I listen to the recording made by Julie Schickling and compare it to dry recordings of the Midshipman made by Cornell University, I can hear immediately that there are (at least) five distinct audio phenomena at work in Ms Schickling’s recording that differentiate it from the latter. Phasing, resonance, ‘beating’ and reverberation, and a distinct swelling and abating of the sound, which is probably an effect of changing air pressure, or breeze direction. The first four of these can be commonly found in one circumstance: inside a tube or other long resonating cavity. It’s exactly the kind of effect you get when you play a didgeridoo, for example: the initial sound vibration interacts with itself to resonate, phase and create harmonics.

Now I’m not suggesting that the Midshipman fish has evolved to the point where it can play the didgeridoo, but are there other tube-like cavities to which it might have access? Long cement tunnels filled with air, say?  Like… stormwater drains?

This, then, is what I consider the next most plausible hypothesis for the West Seattle Hum: as the weather warms up coming into Spring, the male Midshipman fish starts seeking out habitat suitable for its mating rituals, around the coast of West Seattle and especially right down along the Duwamish river near the Lafarge container docks. What it’s looking for are large cavities with exceptional resonant properties. These could be concrete piers, metal boat hulls, wooden wharves or even culverts and drains on the river frontage. I’m betting that there are numerous stormwater outlets that go down to the Duwamish, and probably others on the Western coast as well. These possibly even run submerged into the water. The stormwater drains undoubtedly reach everywhere back up underneath the suburbs of West Seattle. When the fishes start producing their mating call, the vibrations from the resonant cavities in the river and near the drains, begin to generate sympathetic resonances in the air columns in the stormwater tunnels, amplifying the sound, but also very importantly, carrying it up under the streets, where it echoes out from any opening to the outside. It would be formless and directionless – seeming to come from everywhere at once, even, perhaps, being louder inside a house than out. Because it’s being channeled in the drains, in some areas you might hear it clearly and loudly, while in others – even quite close by, you might not hear it at all. The sound being pushed through multiple tubes and tunnels would surely phase with itself and reverberate, and surge as the air pressure changed, reacting with itself to create harmonics such as we hear in Julie Schickling’s recording. The sheer amplification potential of this massive resonant chamber under West Seattle would spur all the fish in the area into competition, rather than exciting just a few proximate neighbours, as would happen in a completely natural environment. As anyone who has recorded frogs or insects knows very well, these creatures in competition can achieve almost deafening levels of sound. It is, in my view, entirely feasible that something like this could be happening in this human-altered Midshipman fish environment.

I want to point out here another factor which may be in play and hasn’t been noted elsewhere: The Labor Day weekend this year, when most of the recent incidences of the Hum were noted, just happened to coincide exactly with a full moon (full moon Aug 31, 99% Sept 1, 98% Sept 2, 94% Sept 3). I can’t say if it’s true of the Midshipman (biologists?) but I do know that the full moon spurs on the mating cycles of many sea creatures. Seattle is also currently experiencing a period of unusually extended dry weather, so the nights over the time of the reportings were clear and mild and the moon would have been prominent in the night sky. Maybe over the Labor Day holiday there was a veritable Midshipman fish orgy going on.

‘I’ve been in Sunrise Heights for 50 years and just started hearing this a couple of years ago. I can tell you that I hear it almost monthly, toward the last weekend of the month’ ~ said LisaH, on the forums.

Or just maybe, Lisa, on every full moon…

The best thing about the Midshipman proposition is that it is trivially easy to test. Next time the sound starts up, someone just needs to go down into the drains. I should think it would be immediately obvious if the sound is coming from there. It would be way louder than anywhere on the streets.

I think also that there are some predictions that can be made if it is the Midshipman fish, and if it is coming from the stormwater system:

1: It’s unlikely the sound will be heard when it’s very windy, from any direction: wind will tend to interfere too much with the air pressure to allow resonance to form well. Mild to warm still conditions would work best.

2: It’s unlikely the sound will be heard through the colder months: the fish don’t make the noise unless mating. You’d certainly never hear it in Winter.

3: It’s unlikely the sound will be anywhere near as prominent during the day, even on quiet early mornings: the fish mate at night.

4: The next clear night with a full moon would be the time to go out with a recorder and get your evidence.

The Cause of the Hum: Speculation #3

My third, and final, speculation on the cause of the West Seattle Hum will, I anticipate, be the least popular of all three among the district’s residents, but I believe it is the most plausible of all. ‘Less popular than the fish!??’ I hear you cry. Well, yes. Speculation #3 is that there is no Hum. Well, at least, there is no one thing that’s causing ‘the’ Hum.

When you have a lifelong interest in weird shit, as I do, you get quite familiar with certain kinds of phenomena that occur time and time again in slightly different guises. One of these recurring phenomena is filed under the heading ‘Mass Delusions & Hysterias’. Now this is not to imply that the residents of West Seattle are somehow mad, or even that people who have heard something are imagining it. But reading the comments on the West Seattle blog, you do feel, as I said at the start of my story in the last post, that all these folks may not be describing exactly the same thing. Some, for example, say the Hum is low pitched – that’s not how I would describe the recording made by Julie Schickling (which other commenters say is exactly the sound they have heard). Some describe the Hum as ‘a grinding sound’, while others say it’s like tinnitus. Some describe it like the sound of trains, others say it’s a noise like ferries, and yet others, helicopters, vacuum cleaners, and idling cars. These are all very different sounds.

Further, the researchers from Washington University, who proffered the Midshipman fish explanation, have not been able to establish their hypothesis as plausible mechanism after attempting to get a sound recording of it (although I do feel I must point out that one failed recording expedition is not any kind of proof that there are no Midshipman fish in the Duwamish or off the coast of Seattle at this time – it  only demonstrates that there was no Hum on the single night that they made their recordings).

Then we have this rather… perplexing… situation as reported by the Seattle Times:

The [West Seattle] blog’s Patrick Sand said the sound was active for two or three days but stopped after people wrote about it. “That seems to have scared off the noise,” he said.

Whoa! Hang on a second there. So, people heard the sound in spades over the Labor Day weekend, but it suddenly disappeared entirely when under scrutiny? That, my friends, is a major red flag in favour of the mass delusion phenomenon.

In essence, it works like this: it’s a holiday weekend, nice weather. People are possibly out & about a bit more, staying up later than usual. In the early hours, some irritating humming noise starts up – it’s a street sweeper, but you’ve not really been awake at this hour much before and never heard one, so you can’t place the sound. Next day you mention it to a friend. ‘Isn’t that the damn Hum people were talking about back in ’09?’ asks your pal. Maybe it is, you think, and tell someone else over coffee. ‘Oh, I heard that last night!’ says your co-worker, who is actually talking about the transformer in the substation at the end of the street, which they’d not really noticed until now. Then you log on to the West Seattle blog and ask if anyone else has heard ‘The Hum’. Before too long, lots of people recollect that, yes, maybe they heard it too…

If you haven’t already, go to the blog now and read down the comments from the beginning with that thought in mind. You’ll keep tripping over observations like these:

‘I think it may be the power of suggestion. Now in Upper Fauntleroy, with a window open to the east-facing back yard, I’m thinking I hear something ambient out there.’ ~ said WSB on the forums.

‘This is not the same hum I’ve noticed in the past.The old hum seemed to be during daylight hours and seemed to come in from the West.’ ~ said old timer

‘This is incredibly weird, because I live at the top of Highland Park Way, and so you’d think based on the description and direction I’d hear it louder than anyone. But I don’t. I have no idea what you all are talking about. Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt there’s SOMETHING, but I’ve NEVER heard it.’ ~ said datamuse

‘Now I can’t sleep because I keep wondering if I’m going to hear this annoying & unusual sound tonight! I think I’ve heard it once before…’ ~ said EJ

…and so on.

Now, I don’t doubt that some people are hearing something. And we have Julie Schickling’s recording to prove that there IS some kind of weird noise that can be heard from the Highland Park area, at least.

So, my favoured explanation for the West Seattle Hum goes like this:

The area of West Seattle and surrounds provides an excellent habitat for the Midshipman fish. Perhaps it has even increased in numbers because of some favourable conditions for breeding, as I have mooted above. It may have even capitulated to evolutionary pressure to increase, by physiological and/or behavioural means, the loudness of its mating call. In the past, people have noticed and mentioned the odd sound – perhaps they were down by the river, perhaps it was a particularly quiet night. It is a very puzzling sound, there is no question. Thus is planted the seed for the idea of The West Seattle Hum. Since a similar sound is heard nearby on Vashon Island, this is a very reasonable starting point for the notion.

The mystery of the eerie sound prompts a level of conversational buzz, which, in the internet age, is quickly amplified (not unlike the hum of the fish itself) until it enters the consciousness of the general population. Now, the West Seattle Hum is a ‘thing’, and all kinds of sounds start getting attributed to it. The idea that it was started from the sounds of a fish is not even known by most people, and since West Seattle is close to numerous industrial centres, mechanical sounds from these places become the more logical focus of attention. This idea is fed by a general distrust of the industry in the precinct – a distrust that is in many cases quite justified (my reading tells me that the plants along the Duwamish have somewhat checkered histories when it comes to community safety and environmental responsibility).

Now comes the Labor Day holiday in September 2012. It’s a very mild night after a long stretch of dry weather – unusual for Seattle. The moon is full. People are out and about for the holiday. In the early hours of the morning – let’s say on Saturday at 1am – with the moon full and the night clear, the Midshipman fish, perhaps in greater numbers than they have been in the past, start their song. It’s very weird, and for whatever reason (perhaps via the stormwater resonance idea I put forward above) the sound carries up into the streets. Quite a few people hear it. However, some people hear other things. ALL these sounds coalesce into one huge, vague phenomenon, with as many disagreements about the source of the sound as there are people recounting their experiences of it.

And then, when some scrutiny comes to bear on the idea – when some video proof that it’s the cement plant would be useful, for example, or some hydrophone recordings of the Midshipman fish could be helpful – there is a mysterious silence. The West Seattle Hum has disappeared once more into the background of normal life.

To sum up: The West Seattle Hum is the workings at the Lafarge plant. It is helicopters. It is the next door neighbour’s airconditioner. It is your imagination. And, it is the fish. If I have to lay my cards on the table, I think it is mostly the fish.

Sleepless in West Seattle

I love a good mystery, so what better way to kick off Hummadruz than with a strange story that’s in the news right now: The West Seattle ‘Hum’. The Hum is a peculiar and annoying buzzing/humming sound that has been widely reported in the West Seattle area over the last week or so, but can be traced to nowhere in particular. It appears to be more noticeable at night, especially in the early hours where it is loud & persistent enough to keep residents awake. Comments on the West Seattle blog show just how widespread the phenomenon is, with as many explanations as there are commenters. The blog even features an audio recording of the sound, from Julie Schickling of the Highland Park area:

Audio recording of the West Seattle Hum (the ‘hum’ starts about 28 seconds in).

It sounds like some kind of mechanical device, and there are, apparently plenty of contenders in the district, from large fans at a steel mill, through power transformers to road sweepers and distant helicopters. If the comments on the blog are anything to go by, it varies in dynamic range from extremely quiet to so loud it can be heard even while wearing ear plugs. Surprisingly, aside from Julie, above, no-one seems to have thought to record it (evidently, the curiosity level of sound recordists in West Seattle is fairly low – if I lived there, my first thought would be to head out and get some evidence).

The Hum, it turns out, is not a recent phenomenon – the West Seattle blog ran a story on it back in April 2009, with some commenters claiming they’ve heard it in years preceding that.

If you’ve ever had any experience reading accounts of anomalous phenomena, you will at once recognize the tone of the comments on the West Seattle blog. There’s a distinct impression that all these people have heard something, but a niggling feeling that maybe they’re not all talking about the same thing –  or, at the very least, not experiencing it in the same way. This is one of the problems with odd and diffuse phenomena – it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to making sense of reports. Human beings are generally poor observers in the best of circumstance and it’s never quite so obvious as when it comes to sound. And, predictably, just to muddy it all up a bit more, there are the pre-requisite fruit loops who think it’s ‘the earth trying to communcate with us’, or aliens, or some kind of government conspiracy – as if things can’t simply be mysterious without having an agenda.

To add to the confusion and puzzlement, the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning, although acknowledging the existence of the Hum, seems reluctant to commit resources to tracking it down. The official Noise Inspector’s reponse to the West Seattle blog’s enquiry about resident’s complaints says, in part:

We are complaint-based, so we rely on the public to notify us of their specific issue and the location of the source. It can be difficult to pinpoint a noise source, especially when you have changes in topography in the immediate area. However, we need to know the potential source location in order to respond with an inspection…. On this particular complaint, we would need neighbors to locate the source before we inspect.

Not quite so easy to do when the ‘source’ is reported from all across West Seattle. That’s bureaucracy for you.

Now, one thing I noticed while reading the nearly 200 comments on the West Seattle blog was that many people were willing to give the location where they heard the sound, and some included even more detail, such as the loudness and the direction from which the sound appeared, to them, to be coming. There’s a not-insubstantial possible database there. So, being the kind of intrepid person I am,  I plotted it, to the best of my reckoning. A commenter on the blog, Ben, had the same thought, and created a Google map of the reportings. I’ve taken my data, and his data and refined it all to reflect reported loudness and also a feasible direction of the sound.

Red dots show occurences of the sound that had geographic location information. Darker red shows louder sound, lighter red shows quieter sound, as indicated in the reports. Green dots are from Ben’s map. Arrows show perceived direction of sound, when included. Highland Park, where Julie Schickling made her recording, is southeast of center on the map. There’s an industrial precinct to the north, another to the northeast, an airport, and a lot of water around this whole district, including a large canal that runs right through the area.

Of course, this ad hoc survey can’t be taken as a proper experiment, as it’s a self-reported, self-selected sample with no controls, so it should be clearly understood that everything we might deduce from this data should be considered speculative. Nevertheless, I think we might be able to make some useful headway if we can keep our assessments rational.

The first thing that seems extremely obvious is that there is no real clumping around any particular area. From this I think we can infer that the sound source is not localized within the West Seattle region. That it can be heard widely down through the area, and that so many commenters find it hard to pinpoint an exact direction, tends to weigh against a particular culprit in a particular location (although something mobile such as street sweeping machines – suggested by a couple of commenters – would remain a possibility).

Significantly, all the directional information, when we have it in the comments (and on Ben’s map comments) tends to point roughly toward the same area: just south of the Eastern Industrial district (disclaimer: I don’t know Seattle at all, and I’m doing this all off maps. I am more than happy to receive additional information & correction from natives.). Now, this could mean that the sound really is coming from that direction, but there are some questions, if that’s the case: why don’t we see clumping closer toward that area, and how should we explain that most of the reports of the loudest occurrences are actually quite a way from that location? We need to consider, also, that psychologically (and logically) there is probably a rational reason to expect that commenters would determine that the industrial areas are responsible, because the Hum does sound considerably machine-like and industrial.

I want to note also that the convergence of the arrows seems to indicate a point that’s significantly to the south of the industrial precinct, to an area that appears to be a container ship loading yard (where, in fact, a commenter drove to attempt to ascertain the location of the Hum). The Lafarge Corporation, a gypsum and cement facility, is also here.

Some other salient points to ponder: the Hum seems to be mainly active at night (although not exclusively) and also seasonal toward spring through summer (although one commenter disputes that). In addition, it is not a consistent phenomenon. It seems to come in surges, the last one being back in 2009. Not only that, the Hum, it turns out, has been reported elsewhere in the area – to the West of Seattle across the bay, on Vashon Island. In this area it is known as the Vashon Island Hum and has a pedigree and history of its own. Vashon Island is certainly way too far away from West Seattle’s industrial areas or shipyards to be affected by the same sound. And yet, it would appear to be fairly similar in nature.

It’s all quite intriguing, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Among all the speculations and hypotheses on the West Seattle blog there are a few comments in particular that really piqued my interest:

‘Or, maybe it’s just ferry boat noises that can carry quite a ways’ ~ says Toby Getsch

‘My bet is on ship engines, possibly the container ships tied up in port. Could also be the ferries. I have kayaked around the port several times to realize the “hum” I’ve heard from my open bedroom window, since moving here in 95, has the same tonal qualities as the container ships’ ~ said Matt Durham in 2009

‘I’m familiar with this noise too and think it is coming from the sewers. Next time you hear it go to a storm drain and see if it is louder’ ~ said mmd.

‘What’s weird is it sounds loud inside and when you walk out it seems quieter’ ~ said DRW (and was not the only one to observe this)

‘Now that I listened to the clip I recognize the sound. … I always thought it was coming from the water’ ~said tp.

‘Reminds me of a didgeridoo…’ ~ said steph

All of which might be pertinent to a rather surprising conclusion from some researchers from Washington University who suggest a remarkable explanation for the West Seattle Hum: the Hum is produced by a fish. Specifically, they say, it’s the mating call of the Midshipman fish.

Indeed, that doesn’t faze one commenter who seems to be speaking with a fair degree of certainty:

‘It’s the midshipman fish. Happens every time this year. Not sure why it’s more noticeable this season—anything from a few new buildings to greater humidity could contribute to the sound carrying farther. But it’s the fish’ ~ declared J.

A fish? Really? Is that even possible? Well, what does a Midshipman fish sound like?

Whoa. OK, well, that is surely a plausible match for the sound recorded by Julie Schickling. Factor in some resonance & phasing and that is a credible fit. The US public radio outlet NPR also has a story on midshipman fish in which you can hear a lot more of the sound.

The Wikipedia entry on midshipman fish tells us that:

Typical Type II male calls are divided into: short grunts that last for milliseconds or are produced in a series of grunts called a “grunt train,” mid-duration growls, and long duration advertisement hums that can last up to an hour.

Commenter Carol on the West Seattle blog describes the sound she hears like this:

‘Hum is really loud now and it is mixed with a chugging sound interspersed with a tonal whine. Sounds like a construction project. This woke me up’ ~ said Carol

Now that’s a pretty damn good description of the sound in the video and the NPR piece – bit of a shame Carol didn’t have her iPhone to hand. A second commenter also hears a similarity:

‘I always assumed it was the steel plant. However, the recording of the fish sure does sound a lot like that hum’ ~ said West Seattle person

The Midshipman fish is native to the West Coast of the USA, and is quite common, especially in the coastal waters north of Oregon. The Red Orbit Reference library entry on Midshipman fish tells us that:

Mating in Midshipman fish depends on auditory communication; males during the breeding season broadcast a sound usually described as a hum, generated by rapid contractions of the muscles in the swim bladder. The sound can be kept up for up to an hour, and is loud enough to be heard by (and to puzzle) people on nearby land and houseboats; the hulls of the boats tend to amplify the sound to sleep-disrupting levels.

But the fish explanation is not going down well with the folks of West Seattle. It evokes a surprising amount of scorn on the blog:

‘Fish? Get real! The sound I think we’re talking about is mechanical: a very large engine, pump, centrifuge or something like that’ ~ said Bryan Hollister.

The sounds of the Midshipman fish seem extremely mechanical – even electronic – to my ears. If the Hum everyone is hearing is the sound that Ms Schickling recorded, there certainly is a similarity to the fish sound.

‘Anyone who understands the basics of energy transfer has to simply laugh at this “fish” theory. It would take a HUGE amount of energy to create a sound loud enough that it could be heard all over West Seattle and further, even if it was directly emitted from a land-based source’ ~ opined Jason.

Ah, yes Jason, but for anyone who understand how sound works, this does not seem nearly as far-fetched as you seem to think. For starters, your argument is largely self-defeating: if you require that the sound needs a huge amount of energy – assuming it comes from a human made facility as I think you must be implying – then it would be a relatively trivial task to locate it: just head toward the direction in which it seems loudest. The very fact that the directional source of the Hum seems to be, according to the blog commenters, extremly difficult to ascertain, says immediately to someone with training in sound that the major issue is not one of decibels.

Certainly, the sound is loud enough – that’s obvious. But really, to carry across an area like West Seattle, the generating source does not need to be as loud as you might expect, if conditions are right, and if you factor in some other circumstances. One thing we sound people would consider is the powerful force of resonance. You know that effect you get when you run your finger around the moistened rim of a wineglass? That’s resonance. Resonance is a sympathetic vibration that can, and does, amplify a sound quite considerably. Almost anything may act as a resonator, but typically, objects containing a mass of air work best. Think of a guitar body, or a drum. Resonance can have profound effects.

So. Since this post has become rather longer than I’d anticipated, I’m going to break it there and follow it up in the next, where I’m going to propose three  explanations for the West Seattle Hum. I’ll tell you right off the top, I’m favouring the fish.

I wonder if you can anticipate my logic?