The sound of science

Sound waves

The sound of science?

Do you remember the strange and mysterious noise of dial-up internet? My memory of that sound is as vivid as those images that come flooding back when you smell the scent of something long-forgotten. Remembering that dial-up noise – expressed in a tweet I saw this week as ‘beep boo beeeep ejwlekl’ – takes me straight back to the 90s when we used to put up with horrifically ugly webpages that took literally seconds to load (how were we ever so patient?).

I think I got a bit overexcited about this noise at the time – when we finally got the internet at my house, I used to pick up the phone just to listen to the sound of the data streams whizzing back and forth. The image I had in my mind was something like that green symbol cascade from The Matrix.

Typing this post over my wireless broadband, I feel like some of the magic has gone (even though invisible broadband in the air is a hell of a lot more ‘magic’ than an old-fashioned cable). So I started wondering what other ‘sounds of science’ are out there – things that our children will laugh at when we’re old, and that we’ll have a hard-to-explain nostalgia for?

One of the most ubiquitous is the dial tone you hear when you’re phoning someone. There’ s no reason these days for it to mimic an actual ‘ringing’ bell (although that ‘old phone’ ringtone is still better than the horrifying default Nokia one). I guess this incredibly familiar sound will one day be replaced with something more ‘up to date’ – which will probably soon sound really retro.

One ‘science sound’ that’s tried to stay up to date is the Intel ‘sonic logo’ – you know, the one that goes ‘DUM. Boong bing boong BING’. I remember being excited at first when they added harmonies for each new advert, but quite soon there wasn’t really anywhere to go with such a simple sound. It became the sonic equivalent of a Gillette zillion-blade razor – faintly ridiculous instead of impressive. You can hear a souped-up (and in my opinion less fun) version here.

The camera ‘shutter click’ noise is another funny one that’s stuck around on digital cameras and cameraphones, even though there’s no reason for them to make that noise except to tell you that your picture has been taken. There’s probably already a whole generation who have never heard that noise for real, only the tinny recorded version.

Now strictly speaking all these are the sounds of technology – what would a pure ‘sound of science’ be like? As any good scientist would, I Googled ‘sound of science’ and found this ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT SONG (yes the caps are necessary).    But as fabulous as it is, it’s not quite what I’m looking for.

The sound of the space shuttle taking off, heading for the final frontier? The sound of a DNA sequencing machine? The sound of the Large Hadron Collider? Actually the one that springs to mind is the first few notes of the original Star Trek theme – evoking the mysteries of space and the excitement of exploration. But this isn’t a ‘real’ sound of science either.

I think the ultimate sound of science is one that we haven’t heard yet – the sound of a signal from an alien life-form (something we might need Spock and Kirk on hand to help us identify). The trouble with this one is that we may well not know it when we hear it. But if and when we do hear and recognise it, it’ll become another evocative sound memory that we won’t ever forget.

One Response to “The sound of science”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Great blog, Nell. Although, you should consider that ba-buh-ba-buh-bah music that the aliens play to the humans in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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