As a writer, I think it’s fair to say one needs silence. (And no, this is not another column bashing the local councils in Sydney, who insist on having creches with squalling babies in local libraries. I’ve gone on at length about that, so enough is enough.) This is, however, about how, as a writer, I appear to have become so used to working in silence, or silent surrounds, that even when I’m not at work, noise has become a mild irritant — any noise, even a quiet hum that shouldn’t be intrusive. Except music, of course.
I’ve wondered if this aversion to any intruding noise is some kind of conditioning at work. This is, of course, only a layman’s assumption for I am no expert on conditioning whatsoever. But I did work up an interest in researching a few things about sound itself. Sound, as we know, has been around since day one. Stone age man uttered incomprehensible cries when he accidentally dropped a rock on his foot, or hit a passing animal.
But apparently it wasn’t until the 17th century (1687) that Isaac Newton, in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica identified sound as a longitudinal wave. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, had postulated a theory that sound may be a wave as early as 4BC, and Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century said: “Do you know that our soul is composed of harmony”?
But it was only after Newton’s principle that the wave theory was universally accepted. Later on, English scientist, William Derham, calculated the speed of sound through the air to be 348 metres per second, or 1,116 feet. Apparently, Derham would dispatch a workmate to different locations with orders to fire a gun at a given time. They synchronised their watches. With the use of a telescope from a tower, Derham was able to time the delay between the gun flash and the arrival of the sound waves that were triggered across the distances.
Later, in the 1780s, a German physicist who was also a musician, Ernst Chladni, used sound to vibrate a thin metal plate with a fine powder on its surface. He found that the powder collected into various elegant patterns as the vibrations interfered with one another. From this he developed a formula for working out the properties of sound from the patterns that formed. In looking up all this research, absorbing all these random facts, one point did emerge: That an initial discovery of something (as with Newton’s principle) is often only the starting point of much further exploration.
Other learned minds took the discovery to greater lengths, made even more interesting observations and with each further discovery it’s been like another chain in a link to progress.
The evidence has been there all along. It just needed man to come along and find it. I mean, going back to sound: today, through the findings of the Austrian scientist Ernst Mach we can understand why shock waves are generated when objects move at supersonic speeds. Mach predicted this in 1877 before it actually began to happen with aircraft a century later.
And then of course there are all the musicians who took sound and – once pitch and frequency had been understood – gave us some of the most breathtaking harmonies and compositions. Beethoven, in the 1800s had said: “Music is a mediator between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit.” I am happy to accept that and, when mildly distracted by something cacophonous these days, I am learning to put on the headphones and appreciate the more glorious side of sound.
Perhaps Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, said it best: “Each celestial body, in fact each and every atom, produces a particular sound on account of its movement, its rhythm or vibration. All these sounds and vibrations form a universal harmony in which each element, while having its own function and character, contributes to the whole.”
That could very well be the blueprint for society.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.