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Learning through sound

The audible world contains vast amounts of information about the world around us. Scholars from across Stanford are exploring this invisible landscape as a research tool and as a way of understanding each other.

BY Amy Adams
ClockJuly 02, 2018

Academics is often a visual pursuit – reading journal articles, examining manuscripts, looking through a microscope. But some things can only be learned through sound. The boom of volcanoes, buzz of mosquito wings or tone of a person’s voice all convey information lost to a visual observer. The challenge in all of these is learning how to make sense of the sounds around us, in some cases with technology and in others by simply listening to one another more carefully.

Beyond helping us interact with the world and with each other, sound can be an almost physical tool. Frequencies beyond the range of human hearing can wake up sleeping appliances and arrange heart cells in the lab. Sound waves can even be a means of peering into the body and diagnosing health conditions.

Stanford scholars from across medicine, engineering, social sciences and the arts are working together to interpret and manipulate this audible world, and to restore hearing to those whose ability is diminished. They’re even helping people learn to listen more carefully to each other. Here, we highlight examples of researchers harnessing sound to understand the Earth.

Listening to climate change

Chris Chafe, director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, composed the piece of music based on the global average temperature and CO2 from A.D. 850 to 2016 – data compiled by his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley.

As temperatures rise and CO2 levels increase, the music goes from a low hum to an increasingly frenetic whine. What people might not see day to day becomes hard to ignore through sound.

Sound learning

The world is filled with pinging, buzzing, reverberating sounds that carry information. Rumblings that portend a volcano; underground vibrations elephants use to communicate; jet plane noises that, if quieted, could also improve power production from wind farms.

This is some of the work underway at Stanford in which researchers are probing the world by listening:

Scientists develop 'Shazam for earthquakes'

A new algorithm that spots matching seismic signals in earthquake databases could find overlooked quakes.

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Earthquake acoustics can aid tsunami warnings

Acoustic characteristics of the 2011 Japan earthquake indicated that it would cause a large tsunami. 

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How modeling air turbulence can improve wind farm performance

Techniques for making fast-flying aircraft quieter could pay off with higher power output from wind farms.

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Sound waves generated by burbling lakes of lava atop some volcanoes could provide advance warning to people who live near active volcanoes.

It’s a sound that can keep even the weariest from falling asleep: the high-pitched whine of a mosquito. This irritating buzz already makes people run, slap and slather on repellent. But if bioengineer Manu Prakash has his way, it may also prompt people to take out their cellphones and do a little science.

A new cellphone app called Abuzz not only identifies the species but puts it on a map. The resulting distribution can help scientists track mosquitoes that carry diseases like malaria, yellow fever, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya and Zika.

Sound tools

Invisible sound waves carry a physical force. They rattle against inner ear cells to create the sensation of sound, and similar waves can trigger devices to turn on, detect hidden tumors or even probe the seafloor. These waves hold power well beyond what we can hear.

Using ocean waves to monitor offshore oil and gas fields

New technique exploits naturally occurring seismic waves to probe seafloor at less expense, and with fewer ill effects on marine life caused by air guns in use today.

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Understanding through listening

It’s one thing to hear and another to listen. The act of listening and communicating can help ease troubled relationships, steer medical decisions and even bring the past to life. But it’s not always easy, which is why some researchers are trying to unravel how we listen and why it’s so important.

Volcanic screams

In 2009, Mount Redoubt, a volcano outside Anchorage, Alaska, began spewing towering ash plumes more than 12 miles tall. Before it did so, a sequence of tiny earthquakes emanated from the volcano’s innards. Though inaudible to listeners on the surface, sensitive seismic instruments placed along the active volcano’s slopes picked up the vibrations.

Sped up 60 times their original speed, the recording’s pop, pop, popping accelerated into what Alaskan seismologists working with Stanford geophysicist Eric Dunham nicknamed “the scream.” Then, a brief silence before “Boom!” An explosion.

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Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, 650-497-0947

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