Science, News & Critical Thinking.

Sounds from space, microwaving your inner ears and other tricks of nature.

Sounds From Space…

I was watching the Leonid Meteor shower in 2001 on the North Shore of Prince Edward Island. It was cold, quiet and a site to behold. I was on a small outcropping of rock above an eerily still ocean, with my back to a dense forest of Jack Pines. The meteors were streaking in sometimes several times a minute, and were nothing more than faint streaking points of light, while the larger bolides cut huge celestial gashes across the early morning sky, leaving long, brief, luminous trails of plasma in their wake.

I noticed that I could actually hear the bolides, as soon as I saw them. You would expect  a thunderous rumble or some sort of a sonic-boom, however the sounds we heard were more like “fizzing” or a metallic sounding “crackle” like a wet branch covered in guitar strings, in a bonfire. At the time I didn’t question it, but then I started thinking, ‘those meteors are hundreds of kilometers away in the upper atmosphere, how is the sound getting to my ears almost instantly?’. Given all I knew about the speed of sound versus the speed of light in my experience with thunderstorms and fireworks, it didn’t seem to make any sense at all.

For every three seconds that pass after a lightening strike, you can count roughly 1 km until you hear the thunder. So if the time between flash and rumble is 6 seconds, you know the strike was roughly 2 km away. Following this logic, if the distorted sonic-boom of a streaking bolide occurs 150-300 km away, you would expect to hear the sound between 7.5 – 15 minutes after you see the streak.

So, the sounds I heard, or thought I heard, were nothing more than my overactive imagination, mixed with a trick of visual and audio paradolia perhaps? No? It turns out, as with anything witnessed, but seemingly impossible to explain, there is a very complicated and cool explanation for what we experienced that night.

Geophysical Electrophonics… I know it sounds like a term pulled from the butt of a cheesy sci-fi movie, but it actually exists.

Turns out, according to a guy named Colin Keay, the super-heated and charged plasma trails caused by large bolides actually tear through the earth’s magnetic field, causing it to stretch out into spaghetti like filaments before they snap, sending Very Low Frequency (VLF) EM waves down to the earth at the speed of light. When these low frequency EM waves hit random debris in the environment, (pine needles, leaves, even hair lightly touching your glasses) they induce a slight kinetic resonant vibration in the debris and create a sound at an audible level. Effectively turning random loosely dispersed environmental conditions into transducers. You can find more precise transducers in your technofile life style, in the forms of speakers and microphones.

Microwaving your head for science…

Geophysical Electrophonics is related to the Microwave Auditory Effect also known as the Frey Effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American neuroscientist known for his research and writing during the Cold War on the nature of the microwave auditory effect.

In World War II, some Radar Technicians working around the equipement would often hear high pitched wistles, hums or crackling sounds that weren’t apparent to the other people working just a few feet away. Turns out the people being affected in this way were actually wandering through microwave hot spots near the machinery, causing their experience.

The effect was better explained by a study conducted by NASA in the 70’s. They found that shorter wavelength portions of the electromagnetic spectrum can cause thermal expanding to parts of the inner ear, in and around the cochlea, which sets up a direct vibration in the fluid of the inner ear that stimulates hearing. Apparently you can get this effect even with very low doses of this radiation. Further to this process, and much neater, if you take these EM waves and modulate them slightly like you would radio waves, you can actually turn those random crackles into words and tones without the need for the person to wear any additional hardware. All the sounds are created inside the person’s inner ear.

Naturally, the technology for this type of communication would be rather difficult to refine, due to the possible dangers of using Microwaves on people. I can imagine that loudly saying hello to your friend or turning up the volume would mean a rather uncomfortable, and awkward trip to the burn unit for everyone involved. But still, there are some aspects of this technology creeping it’s way into the military.

In 2006 some non-lethal weaponry that exploits this effect was declassified in the USA. In 2008 a company called the Sierra Nevada Corporation announced that they would be bulding a weapon called MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio), as a way to bring more non-lethal weaponry into the military. It’s a neat idea, but according to some scientists at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Illinois in Chicago, far from cooking people, it just causes crippling sound. But it they would be more worried about any lasting neurological damage that would occure from using such a weapon.

Nerves are extraordinarily fragile. When you start dealing with higher frquency radiation reactions in the body, our nervous systems aren’t naturally equipped to deal with the side effects, such as thermal nerve damage. I for one fully endorse the exploration and the use of non-lethal weaponry, however, we had better make damn sure that we aren’t causing more harm that good if we decide to release this type of weaponry on violent or peaceful crowds of people.