Monday, September 28, 2020

Acoustic archaeology; really?


     I’ve been involved with music much of my life, playing my violin at gatherings such as weddings and funerals, for a while in a country square-dance band, and for six years in a group we called Cold Biscuit at all kinds of functions.  It’s been fun and has earned extra money.


     I love most kinds of music and often listen through headphones as I’m writing fiction at my computer.  My favorite piece is Beethoven’s hauntingly beautiful “Moonlight Sonata.”  I even laboriously taught myself to play it on the piano over a month, although I’m no pianist.  I’ve listened to several accomplished pianists doing the piece and found each to be slightly different in style, this note progression played a bit faster or slower than others play it, that few bars played more loudly or softly, a note held a bit longer or not held quite as long.  Overall, this makes perceptible differences in how the piece sounds and thus subtle differences in how it affects me.  And that, in turn, got me thinking, just how, exactly, did the genius Beethoven himself play it?


     It seems only logical that we can never know.


     Or can we?


     There is a fringe scientific field called acoustic archaeology.  It explores the possibility that we can retrieve sounds from the past.  This seems ridiculous at first, but the idea grows on you when you think a bit deeper.  


     Early recordings were captured on wax cylinders by a stylus that vibrated in sync with sound input and in so doing incised indentations in the wax.  The sounds could be retrieved when a playback needle was drawn across those indentations at the same speed and the resultant sound amplified through a megaphone.  This was the essence of the early twentieth-century wind-up Victrola and the sound was not great, although it seemed astonishing in its time.  That same basic principle, greatly refined, still works with vinyl records, which are making a surprise comeback, and with superb fidelity.


     Columnist David Jones claimed in 1982 that sound waves will vibrate a metal trowel as they impinge on it, so if a plasterer happens to be singing lustily as he works, the trowel should create tiny ripples in the wet plaster, and if those ripples, when dried, could be read by a sophisticated-enough device (a laser?) at least parts of the worker’s song ought to be reproducible.


     Serious scientists are studying other ways old and even ancient sounds might be recovered.  One claimed to have retrieved the hum of a potter’s wheel by electromechanically reading the grooves in a pot cast on that wheel, for example.  Still deeper thinking posits that sound might subtly change a room’s very molecular structure in a faint but retrievable way through some future high tech.


     I was writing this post when a related article popped up in the news.  Egyptian Karnak priest Nesyamun died 3,000 years ago, but his mummified remains, which even survived the Nazi Blitz, are in remarkably good condition.  His dying wish was that he be allowed to speak in the afterlife so he could petition the gods for admission to eternity.  A team of scientists from Royal Holloway, London U., York U., and the Leeds Museum, CT scanned the old guy’s vocal tract, 3D printed it, and produced a sound through the printed replica, the first step in possibly reproducing words and even sentences from this priest who has not been heard for thirty centuries. They even have hieroglyphics incised on his coffin so they can perhaps have him say what he hoped to in the afterlife.  File that away in your weird folder.


     Meanwhile, if Beethoven ever happened to practice his “Moonlight Sonata” in an otherwise quiet church, say, which was being plastered at the time . . .



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Monday, September 21, 2020

Complacency Kills

    I was 18 when I learned to ride a souped up and leaned down Harley motorcycle with a tank shift and a suicide left foot clutch (you couldn’t put that foot down with the bike in gear when stopping). My self-taught lesson was on busy Collins Avenue in Miami Beach and yes, despite the immortal attitude of the young and the lack of a fully formed brain, as with all teenagers, I was scared enough to use a modicum of common-sense caution. But over the next several months as I gained confidence the caution ebbed and I became bolder. The inevitable happened. One day in Coral Gables I went down, luckily in a woman’s soft front lawn, so there was no damage to the bike or me save for a few bruises on my body and my misplaced ego. I returned to riding with caution.

    I was lucky. I knew other riders who, after shedding their natural initial caution, suffered severe injuries because of complacency.   

    A similar thing happened when many years later I became a private pilot. Initial apprehensions. Initial prudent cautions. Then, years later, complacency and lax attention to the basics. And two very close calls that I and my passengers survived only with as much luck as skill.

   Fellow pilots I knew over the years died along with several passengers. One was a surgeon who had repaired a torn ligament in my left knee. Shortly after earning his instrument rating and with the confidence boost thus gained, he took off with his wife and another couple for the mountains in weather he was not yet experienced enough to handle. All four died. (A similar fate met JFK Junior and his passengers one dark foggy night in New England.) Another friend crashed his ultralight he’d flown many times before but should not have flown that hot dusty day. Yet another was exuberantly pushing his new airplane to it limits with two other pilot friends aboard. All three died in a simple low-altitude stall. Killed by overconfidence and complacency.

    Some 40,000 Americans die annually on our highways. In many cases killed by simple complacency after years of taking risks like texting, speeding, and aggressive lane shifting and getting away with it.   

    After 9/11 our nation pulled together in defiance of terrorist enemies and in generous support of survivors and in lamentation for the dead. For a time, there was not an American flag to be had left in stores or online.

    We’re facing another deadly common enemy now, except it’s microscopic. Our only ways to control its spread are masking and social distancing. We know these measures work because we have shining examples as proof. In both Japan and New Zealand, per capita infection and death rates are a tiny fraction of ours because the populace in both countries observed strict lock-downs from the start and have practiced near total masking and distancing and can now open their economies with safe precautions. In dark contrast, our chaotic response coupled with mass refusal to wear masks or to social distance has resulted in thousands upon thousands of needless infections and deaths.

    And now I fear complacency and lax attention to safe practices are going to kill thousands more. Months into the continuing pandemic, I’ve seen increasing numbers of people taking risks they would not have taken several months ago, when apprehension dictated caution. A family on our street recently hosted a gathering of at least forty people. No masking. No social distancing. The lady of the house is a nurse who should know better.

    I know older people who eat out, go to crowded bars, and shop routinely rather than use curbside pickup. Don’t wear masks. Don’t social distance. As the death toll climbs past 200,000 Americans with no end in sight.

    Please do not let your guard down. We have many months to go before this pandemic can be beaten back. Together we can overcome this monster that continues to threaten our way of life and is sickening and killing far too many of us. We know how to fight it.

    But will we?


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Monday, September 14, 2020

An Omen of Hope

    For more than a week now, brilliant yellow butterflies have been tumbling across my yard close by the river. They seem to be metamorphosing from their caterpillar forms into their flight versions in a thick hedge that borders my property. 

    They flutter past singly or in groups of two or three. All heading unerringly northwest toward some mysterious destination. How the devil are they navigating so precisely? Their sophisticated antennae can sense a variety of odors, which helps them find favorite flora, but they can’t be following a scent trail because the breeze has been nearly constant off the water out of the northeast, a direct crosswind for them. It would blow any scents away.  

    A little digging revealed they’re called Cloudless Sulfur butterflies, with a wingspan between two and three inches. In the fall they migrate hundreds of miles south to Florida and the northern Bahamas. It’s nearly time to begin their Big Trip, but the direction they’re all going is directly opposite their migration direction.

    So where are they going and how are they navigating there?

    Any investigation of butterflies turns up the incredible migration of the large Monarch, with its stunning orange-and black-wings that resemble an exquisite work of miniature stained-glass art. It carries out one of the most incredible migrations on the planet. It, too, moves southward each fall, fluttering up to 3,000 miles from northern America and southern Canada all the way to the fir-tree-clad mountains of Mexico, taking advantage of air currents and thermals wherever possible along the way.

    How the Monarch (and presumably its Cloudless Sulfur cousin) navigates has only been partially discovered. Scientists think it senses sun angle and time of day precisely using its compound eyes and delicate antennae. Its tiny brain (cerebral ganglia) processes this information continuously, translating it into a “sun compass” that gives it a correct course to follow. In the fall, it’s compelled to make the entire journey from northern breeding grounds to Mexico. But the return spring journey can require up to four generations of successors.

    So how do those intermediate generations know what to do, having never seen either the breeding grounds or the Mexican mountains? And how does a third- or fourth-generation team member summering in Canada know it must travel south to the same place its ancestors did before it turns cold? I’m pretty sure there is no tiny butterfly training manual.

    Butterflies favor milkweed for dining, but they also love a variety of nectar plants, and thus, like bees, they perform an important pollinating role in nature’s complex scheme.    

    In Native American culture, the bright yellow Cloudless Sulfur creatures, standing out cheerful and brave against blue skies or dark storm clouds, were an omen of hope and spiritual guidance. Something we sorely need in these troubled times.

    No matter how they find their way in this natural realm we share, the little yellow passersby have been lifting my heart for days. Each one I see evokes an inner smile.


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Monday, September 7, 2020

Strange Astronomical Perceptions

    Our faithful star and moon seem a lot larger as they rise or set, and we have a lingering perception embedded in our memories that both are always big and bright, fostered by all the stunning telephoto shots of them looming over landmarks around our planet and by depictions of them in art and graphics.

    But the perception of them being larger near the horizon is only a mental illusion. They remain their visual sizes throughout their entire apparent motions across the sky. Apparent because of course it’s the earth that provides that 24-hour motion deception by rotating on its axis. The sun appears to move its own diameter every two minutes as the earth is rotating to the east. Depending on how close you happen to be to the equator, you’re moving at up to 1,100 miles per hour just because of that rotation. We don’t sense it because we only feel acceleration or deceleration, not constant velocity. (Think about sitting in a car on a smooth road doing a constant seventy; you don’t feel it, and you only know you’re moving by the scenery rushing by. Close your eyes and you could be sitting still.)

    We also have the idea that the sun appears much larger than the moon. In truth, they appear the same size. The sun is indeed 400 times larger than the moon, but it’s also 400 times father away from us. That’s the reason the moon can sometimes completely eclipse the sun briefly.

    Believe it or not, the moon (or the sun) is only the same perceived size as a quarter as viewed from nine feet away. Yet if you have 20/20 vision you can pick out amazing detail on the moon including some cratering and the darker maria (so named because they resembled seas to early observers). The moon seems so bright, yet it really is the color of asphalt. It only appears to be bright against the utter blackness of space.

     To me the most mind-bending astronomical perception of all is the apparent static state of our Milky Way stars and the many other galaxies strewn across the universe. In truth, nothing is static out there. Everything is in motion, rotating or orbiting or rushing through space, as our entire solar system is doing collectively. As our entire Milky Way galaxy is doing as well.

     We’re speeding sixty-seven thousand miles an hour right now just in our annual journey around our own star yet, again, we feel it not at all because that velocity is constant.
     The dazzling collection of starlight that enters our eyes tonight is not the universe we perceive it to be. It can only ever be an ancient rendition. It is starlight that’s just now arriving from tens and dozens and hundreds and thousands and millions of our years in the past.

     At 186,000 miles per second, it takes four and a half years for just the light from the nearest star other than our sun to make that incredible journey of twenty-six thousand billion miles.


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