December 4, 2014

THE WILD LIFE | If You Thought Interstellar Blew Your Mind, Hear Again

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By MICHAEL LEVIN

Space is pretty big right now. Interstellar was awesome, the Star Wars teaser dropped and we landed a probe on a comet shaped like a rubber ducky 300,000,000 miles away. The more I hear about our forays to the final frontier, the more frustrated I get being stuck here on land. So I decided to mix it up a bit this week. Space is a little tricky when it comes to supporting life, so I went with the other vast, unexplored wilderness we have access to: the ocean. To be honest, all I was looking for was enough material to make a few solid Finding Nemo puns. I got my mind rearranged instead.

“What would it be like to be born into an environment where sound is the entrance to your soul?” This was the first moment where Dr. Christopher Clark, a senior scientist in Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research program, blew my mind. “Where sound is your primary modality for self-recognition, for your sense of where and who you are?” That was the second.

About 20 years ago, Dr. Clark was given access to the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Listening system, built to listen in on the ocean during the Cold War to find the pesky Soviet submarines that were swimming around back then.

The base’s equipment is designed to take various frequencies bouncing through the water and transcribe them to a visual medium we can more readily analyze; something that looks a lot like a musical score. He was discussing some of the readings with one of the lieutenants stationed there, when a pattern shaped like a warped picket fence caught his eye.

He recognized it as the song of a blue whale, singing at a frequency so low that it registered only on an infrasonic scale we’re incapable of hearing. With some navigational charts and quick math, Dr. Clark calculated that the individual he was listening to was somewhere off the coast of Nova Scotia. This was somewhat surprising to him, since he was reading the song loud and clear off the coast of Puerto Rico. That’s 1,600 nautical miles (1841 regular miles), for those of you keeping score.

“It was like going into one of those Star Wars space-time transitions,” he told me. “The way I’d been looking and listening to ocean…” Clearly still boggled by his 20-year-old revelation, he had to pause for a moment and collect himself. He continued, “my scale and perception would’ve fit under the tip of a pencil on top of the ocean. I was so constrained in the way I though about space, and time and voice.”

The lieutenant seemed to enjoy watching his mind implode, so she threw some fuel on the fire. She told him that sound waves take one minute to travel for every 50 miles of water. That’s 32 minutes for sound to get from that whale to that base. For all you space nerds, that’s kind of like looking up at the star closest to our solar system, Alpha Centauri, and realizing that what you’re seeing is actually the light that it gave off four years ago.

Here on land, Ithaca to San Francisco is about 2,800 miles. When I spoke to Dr. Clark on the phone in California, it took only about a fraction of a second for his voice to cross that distance. Put that on a whale scale, and I’d be waiting almost an hour for his response.

In the same way Interstellar forces you to consider other dimensions, or at least accept that they’re there, thinking about underwater bioacoustics forces you to think differently about space and time. Whales can move about 500 miles in a week. Their hearts beat only a few times a minute, sometimes slower when they dive. A 30-minute delay is nothing to the largest organism to have ever lived on earth. It’s even been theorized that before we filled the ocean with the auditory ruckus of shipping and drilling, blue whales could communicate across entire oceans.

Living an auditory life would mean embracing spatial and temporal scales that we are entirely unaccustomed to. We’re a pretty visual species – seeing is believing, eyes are a window to the soul and all that. But it’s sound that gets to us. Loud noises make us jump. Sweet melodies make us swoon. The Star Wars theme song makes us jump for joy (ok, maybe just some of us). Think back to the saddest points in Interstellar, or any of your favorite movies. The visuals can be pretty heartbreaking, but it’s the soundtrack that makes you cry.

Our identities are inextricably connected with how we look. So imagine that you had nothing shiny to admire yourself in, and couldn’t look down at the rest of your body. The only way you could distinguish yourself from everyone else is with your voice. Whales can barely see their own tails. They need sound to establish a presence in the immensity of the environments they exist in. If you think music is beautiful now, imagine a song imbued with the essence of everything you are. If you’re a whale, that’s your handshake.

I’m going to challenge you the same way Dr. Clark challenged me. We take hearing for granted in a big way, so try tapping into it a bit more. He told me, “Find someplace you can walk down a hallway, and close your eyes. Walk along it; you can tell the difference when you pass a closed doorway, and an open doorway.” So go find a hallway, avoid your jackass roommates who will trip you when you try this and see what you can figure out about what is around you using only your ears. Let me know how it goes — whale noises are strongly encouraged.

Michael Levine is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at mlevin@cornellsun.com. The Wild Life appears alternate Thursdays this semester.