Audio-archeology, or listening to the roar of the t-rex
May 7, 2011 8:35 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone ever attempted to find sound recordings out in the world that weren't made with human technology?

Pre-digital, pre-tape sound recordings are based on engraving vibrations in different ways. This makes me wonder: has any research attempted to find ways to play back naturally engraved sound vibrations, perhaps on a microscopic scale?

For example, what if a loud sound caused a hard substance to etch a durable surface in a way that could be listened to later? I'm curious whether this possibility is being--or has ever been--explored by scientists.

This was a late night, stare-at-the-ceiling thought I had. So feel free, if necessary, to tell me why this would be impossible, utterly improbable, or just silly.
posted by umbĂș to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This addresses accidentally engraved vibrations rather than naturally engraved ones, but probably the same conclusion applies:
Q. I've read that sounds may have been recorded accidentally on prehistoric clay pots (or captured in the paint of on Old Masters' paintings, or dessicated dinousaur droppings and such). When can we hear these accidental recordings?

A. There has been a lot of speculation along these lines, but all experimental evidence to date suggests these accidental recordings to be highly unlikely. For instance, Discovery Channel's MythBusters, in Episode 62, were unable to make a decipherable voice recording intentionally by shouting near a straw as it traced a groove on the surface of a clay pot. On the basis of this experiment, they concluded that there was little chance of this having happened accidentally in antiquity. If you've seen a French-language video clip in which scientists appear to be recovering speech recorded on a prehistoric pot, it was probably Bilge Sehir's Vases Sonores (2005), intended by its maker as a piece of fiction.*
posted by paulg at 8:46 PM on May 7, 2011

Do you mean something like this -- glacial striations. Glaciers scrape rock against rock, resulting in grooves. I suppose, in theory, you could "play" these recordings.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:47 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the problem you have is that recording technology passes a head over a surface. The head's amplitude can vary arbitrarily, but the medium onto which the recording is made (cylinder, disk, tape) moves in a non-arbitrary way from one recording site to another, at a measured pace.

In nature, you often have two things rubbing up against one another, but you don't often have one thing being pulled past another in a one-way direction, let alone at a calibrated speed. In the absence of this one way motion, the "inscriptions" get overwritten by subsequent inscriptions, so that if we're measuring amplitude (e.g, depth of an impression), only the highest is recorded; if we're measuring direction (offset or angle from center), we eventually get all (or if there is some systemic bias, all possible) directiosn recorded.
posted by orthogonality at 8:47 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

There was a CSI episode in which sound was inadvertently recorded into a clay pot, I've seen it addressed a few times around the Internets.
posted by illenion at 8:49 PM on May 7, 2011

As kind of an oblique answer to this, Rilke was fascinated by the project of playing the coronal suture on a skull on a phonograph -- seeking "primal sound." "Leaving that side for the moment: what variety of lines then, occurring anywhere, could one not put under the needle and try out? Is there any contour that one could not, in a sense, complete in this way and then experience it, as it makes itself felt, thus transformed, in another field of sense?" Here's an English version of the essay where he outlines the idea.
posted by finnb at 8:51 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Mythbusters tried this at one point with a reed on a still-soft clay pot.. I believe they declared it busted.
posted by supercres at 8:51 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I once saw a theory that echoes from pacific sea battles might still be running up and down the deep trenches at the bottom of the ocean. Sadly, it's not true though.
posted by joannemullen at 8:54 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background can loosely be considered "sound" waves (they are density waves, but in a considerably different medium than the Earth's atmosphere), and astrophysicists have found a way to "play them back".

Also, not exactly what you're looking for, but some paleontologists study dinosaur remains to try to figure out what sounds the dinosaurs might have made.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:05 PM on May 7, 2011

The wild birds where I live can learn to make the sound of motorbikes etc. I suppose that is recording in a sense.
posted by Not Supplied at 12:13 AM on May 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think probably not. It takes quite a bit of complicated and precise technology to engrave sounds in the first place, this is not likely to occur by accident.
posted by carter at 3:07 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I suppose any sort of recurring pattern or waveform in nature could be re-interpreted as sound. Take, for example, the layers in an ice core. It wouldn't take much work to translate those varying strata as noise of some sort. This, of course, isn't the same as actual sound being captured in nature.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:59 AM on May 8, 2011

All I can add is that if you've never seen What's Up, Doc?, you're going to love it.
posted by dhartung at 10:27 AM on May 8, 2011

Not exactly what you're looking for, but you may find the work of John Luther Adams pretty interesting. He created this for the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The text he wrote for the room:

We are immersed in music.

The earth beneath us, the air around us and the sky above us are filled with vibrations. Most of these vibrations are beyond the reach of our ears.

In this room, you will hear some of this music.

You will hear no familiar musical instruments or sounds of nature. Yet every sound you hear is connected directly to the natural world, here and now.

The atmosphere of sound and light changes with the movements of the sun, the rhythms of day and night. Daylight sings like a choir of bright voices. Its colors are orange, yellow and red. The voices of night are darker. Its colors are violet, blue and cyan.

The moon rises and falls, appears and disappears, like a solo voice.

When the aurora borealis is active (even if hidden by daylight or clouds), bell-like sounds float across the ceiling.

When the earth quakes (even imperceptibly) the walls and the floor shudder and rumble like deep drums.

This music has no beginning, middle, or end. Even in moments of apparent stillness, it is always changing. But it changes at the tempo of nature. To experience its full range requires listening in day and night, winter and summer.

This is an ecosystem of sound and light that resonates with the larger world around it. When no one is here, the forces of nature continue to reverberate within this space.

But the awareness of the listener brings it to life.

The Place Where You Go To Listen is not complete until you are present and listening.

~ John Luther Adams

posted by madred at 11:05 AM on May 8, 2011

Psst- just want to throw in a clarification: Paleontology is dinosaurs, Archaeology is people
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 11:00 PM on May 9, 2011

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