Sound recording technology has come a long way since its invention in the 19th century. While its best-known uses may bring you your favorite music and podcasts, there are many surprising ways sounds are used in scientific research.
Here are ten weird and surreal examples, and you won’t believe some of them can even make a sound!
Related: 8 Scientific Mysteries That Got Even More Puzzling Recently
10 The melting of glaciers
As global temperatures rise, scientists need to know how fast glaciers will melt to help them with tasks like predicting sea level rise. Traditionally, satellite photography or images have been used for this purpose, but more recently, scientists have been listening to glaciers using hydrophones, which are underwater microphones. This helps them hear what’s going on below the surface.
Apparently a melting glacier sounds like firecrackers or fried bacon! Popping sounds occur when the bubbles jump into the water. The goal is to count the ratio of bubbles bursting to the number of bubbles in the glacier to find out how fast the glaciers are melting. The research is much more important than it appears on the surface: Rising sea levels could have devastating effects on hundreds of millions of people around the world.
9 Unsilenced Animals
We all know the sounds that a bird, a cat or a frog makes. You can even tell what sound a fox makes. But the sounds of many other animals remain a mystery to us, especially when it comes to amphibians and sea creatures. Gabriel Jorgewich Cohen, Ph.D. student from Zurich, has been leading research into whether many of these species actually make noise, and it turns out that many of them do. You can even hear them on his recordings.
The sounds were also recorded using a hydrophone, just like the glaciers. Traveling to various institutions in five countries, Cohen recorded a large number of animal species previously assumed to be mute, including fifty species of turtles and lungfish, which are fish that can breathe air. He discovered that none of them was dumb. Every animal he recorded made sounds. Additionally, the findings suggest that sound-producing species may have shared a common ancestor around 407 million years ago.
8 All the planet
In 2014, sensors were turned on in Indiana, USA, which were designed to record every sound made on the planet for an entire year. Yes, all the sounds: the chirping of birds, the ultrasonic whistling of bats, the waves of the sea, earthquakes and everything in between. The research was led by Bryan Pijanowski, who describes himself as a “soundscape ecologist.” The distinction is made from a more regular ecologist by the fact that instead of listening to the sounds of a single species to learn about them, Pijanowski listens to discover how those sounds interact with those of other species and the environment.
In her work, she listens to the rhythms and patterns of nature, such as the sound of the world at dawn and during certain seasons. Tracking such patterns can provide scientists with important insights into the state of the planet.
7 a single bacterium
An amazing fact that you may not know is that every living cell produces sound through tiny vibrations known as “nanomotion.” The invention of graphene, a highly sensitive material, allowed scientists to amplify the sounds of nanomovements, and they found that it allowed them to hear the sounds produced by bacteria. They could even distinguish between live and dead bacteria in this way.
Strangely, the graphene proved to be so sensitive that they were actually able to hear a lone bacterium swimming around for a bit as it moved by itself in some water. But the research has a bigger agenda: It could be crucial in the fight against infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance.
6 martian storms
The Perseverance rover carried the first working microphone on Mars. Despite only recording for three minutes every other day, she made some important discoveries, including recording a whirlwind on the planet. The team had already seen evidence of nearly 100 dust eddies since the rover’s landing, but considered themselves lucky the first time one passed while the microphone was on.
The sound recording helped them better understand the Martian atmosphere and climate, along with other tools such as air pressure readings and time-lapse photography. They learned that Martian dust eddies have a power similar to Earth’s, which means future astronauts need not worry about hurricane force winds blowing equipment down.
5 a black hole
In space, no one can hear you scream, right? Well not exactly. It is true that sounds need a medium to travel, like air or water, but space is a vacuum and does not have them. So it should be completely silent. But in 2022, NASA showed that this is not entirely accurate. The space is not a complete vacuum chamber, so it is not completely silent. Galaxy clusters contain gases that can provide the medium for sound waves to travel.
Because of this, NASA was able to record the sound emanating from a black hole. They had to amplify it many times as the sound was in a pitch about 57 octaves below middle C, too low to be heard by human ears. If having to scale the note 57 times in order to hear it sounds like a lot, consider that in terms of frequency, it had to be scaled up about 288 quadrillion times more than the original, and one quadrillion has 15 zeros!
4 deep sea species
In addition to rising sea levels, the oceans are also warming. Scientists worry that this could cause irreversible changes to underwater ecosystems and the extinction of some species. In response to this, an international team of marine biologists started a project called “GLUBS”, or the Global Library of Underwater Biological Sounds. For the project, they record the surprisingly wide range of sounds heard deep under the sea floor in the hope that the recordings can be used to identify and learn about species.
Dolphins and whales are far from the only creatures that make noise in the ocean; Among many other sounds, scientists have even heard sea urchins scrape and eat the algae on coral reefs. Many of the other sounds captured have not yet been linked to the species that produce them. The researchers hope that the algorithms will help them match the sound and the species.
3 Earth’s Magnetic Field
In 2022, scientists at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) managed to convert magnetic signals measured by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Swarm satellite into sound. The satellites, launched in 2013, captured the crackling sounds as they measured Earth’s magnetic field, which shields the planet’s inhabitants from cosmic radiation.
The data from the magnetic signals was used to create a sonic representation of the Earth’s central magnetic field. In this case, the sound was not captured directly but was modeled from the characteristics of the data collected by the satellites. The resulting audio represents the magnetic field generated by the Earth’s core interacting with a solar storm. It is hoped that this research can help scientists understand the weather in space, as well as increase knowledge of the Earth’s magnetic field.
2 an atom
The interactions between atoms and light have been well investigated in certain branches of physics. Less known is the interaction of sound waves with atoms. But in 2014, scientists successfully used sound for the first time to “talk” to an atom, albeit an artificial one. However, an artificial atom, like a regular atom, can be charged using energy that it then emits as a particle. The resulting particle is usually a light particle.
However, researchers at Chalmers University in Sweden produced an atom that could become charged and emit energy in the form of sound. One of the researchers explained how this sound is the weakest that can be detected. They hope the research will inspire new insights into quantum phenomena because sound travels much slower than light, so scientists will potentially have more time to control and observe quantum particles.
Lots of things happen inside the Sun: flares, bouncing waves, solar flares, and more. But human eyes aren’t sensitive enough to see them, and even with the visual technologies scientists have, they still can’t see what’s going on inside. Instead, they use the vibrations produced by waves and flares from the Sun and sonify them to learn more about the center of our solar system.
This research has been led by the European Space Agency and NASA, who have been capturing the vibrations produced by the movements of the Sun for more than 20 years. The vibration data is cleaned to eliminate, among other things, the sounds of spacecraft ( hopefully man-made!). The frequency is then increased by a factor of 42,000 to make it audible to the human ear. In fact, you can hear the slightly eerie pulsating hum of our nearest star on the NASA website.
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