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Book review: Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound by Trevor Cox

 

Last month’s news that the Inchindown oil storage tanks in Scotland have entered the record books as the man-made structure with the longest echo – a resonating 112 seconds – is very largely due to the author of this book. Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, embarked on a quest to find not only the longest echo (or more correctly, reverberation) in the world, but also the noisiest, the quietest and even the most musical places around the globe.

It’s a job he undertakes with boyish enthusiasm even if, as in the Inchindown tanks, he has to squeeze through a storage pipe into “foul brown liquid”. He has a slightly easier time when he visits the “singing sands” of the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave Desert of California. In the right conditions, the dunes can be made to make musical sounds. Struggling up one, he finds that “each laboured footstep created a single honk”. He has more luck on a trial slide on another slope where he could feel the ground “vibrating under my bottom” and the dunes break into song. It’s this infectious hands-on (or perhaps bottoms-on) approach to new experiences and new sounds that make Professor Cox’s odyssey such an entertaining one.

Listening close up to Big Ben, for instance, he experiences a “visceral power” that resonates in his chest like “the pumping bass line in a nightclub,” and discovers that its distinct sound is because of a crack that appeared in the bell shortly after it was first installed.

He’s also able to impart these wonderful soundbites when he goes in search of sound in the animal world, whether it’s another researcher’s description of singing seals as like a “choir of alien angels”, or the fact that you can work out the temperature in Celsius by dividing the number of chirps per minute of the snowy tree cricket by seven and adding four.

But it’s probably the Katzenklavier or cat piano which intrigues the most. The invention of 17th-century scientist Athanasius Kircher, it proposed using an ordinary piano keyboard attached to a line of cages each of which had a cat trapped inside. Every time a piano key is pressed, a nail is driven into the tail of one unfortunate feline, which naturally screeches. With the right set of cats  a sadistic musician could play a tune. Happily, he concludes, it appears it was never actually built.

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