What is sound?

5 January 2006 at 8:49 am Leave a comment

I was reading an article called “An Echo of Black Holes” in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American during my Christmas vacation and read the following: 

“When Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in 1905, he rejected the 19th century idea that light arises from vibrations of a hypothetical medium, the ‘ether.’  Instead, he argued, light waves can travel in vacuo without being supported by any material–unlike sound waves, which are vibrations of the medium in which they propagate” (emphasis added, p. 69).

Now as a humanities major, I didn’t study a whole lot of physics, but I try to keep up with current trends by plowing through SciAm articles as best I can.  The beauty is that I read them like a child so that a sentence like this will stop and make me think.  Suddenly I am wondering what sound is. . . . Suddenly I am awakened to one of the amazing mysteries of science, one of many I ignore as I go on my way “getting and spending” as Wordsworth would say.  I am easily stunned by simple observations like this, and it makes me long to study science formally so that I would have the pat answers and understandings.  However, I think of Wordsworth’s learned astronomer and know that I made the right choices in my life. 

So if sound is a vibration of the medium in which it propagates–which I guess would be the air–then what is it that causes a sound?  What causes the vibration in the first place?  Where is the source of the sound of my (two) hands clapping?  Or the proverbial tree falling in the forest?  How do we make sounds with our voice?  As Robert Penn Warren says in his amazing poem “Fear and Trembling,” “What is a word but wind through the tube of the throat?”  But now I’m wondering about how wind through the tube of the throat causes the air to vibrate. 

One of the joys of being a nomad scholar is that I can read whatever I want to without feeling guilty or neglecting my scholarly “duties” of keeping up with a particular area of scholarship, following critical debates, preparing for classes that I’m teaching, grading shabby undergraduate essays, or reading stuff that I’m “supposed” to read.  I am free to follow my interests, and as a poet with a child-like sense of wonder, I have no end of interests to pursue.

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Entry filed under: science.

On Wandering pt. III A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION

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