Review in American Scientist
A History of Racket-Making
DISCORD: The Story of Noise. Mike Goldsmith. xiv + 302. Oxford University Press, 2012. $29.95.
Noise and nuisance: the words seem almost cognate expressions for the vexations of modern life. Accordingly, the time seems ripe for “the first and only history of noise in all its forms,” as Mike Goldsmith describes his new book. Former head of the Acoustic Group at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, Goldsmith has written many books for young people. Discord: The Story of Noise is his first work for an adult audience and his first extended treatment of a historical topic. His insight as an acoustic scientist and his interest in bringing scientific issues to life animate the book at many points. I thoroughly enjoyed this treasure trove of curious facts and anecdotes.
Goldsmith commendably embraces the need for a historical approach to his subject, which other scientists would do well to consider. As he explains, “The ways in which troublesome noise is viewed, and the reasons it can be so hard to control, are often rooted in the historical development of our relation to it.” Merely expressing the physical parameters of noise in contemporary technical terms will not capture the complexity of human perception and reaction, nor the depth of the social and political forces that shape and limit efforts at noise control.
To place noise in fuller context, Goldsmith combines exposition of modern acoustic measures and terminology with a historical survey that goes back to prehistoric times—after a glance at the curious silence of the Big Bang, whose name suggests a large noise indeed, but which occurred before space itself existed to resonate its profound vibrations. A mere 380,000 years later, though, the universe was filled with sound at the very low frequency of about a trillionth of a hertz, far beyond the lower threshold of human hearing (about 20 hertz) yet arguably an aspect of the shaping force for the cosmic structures we still see in the sky. Goldsmith’s evocation of this little-known sonic counterpart to the famous cosmic background radiation shows his gift for presenting striking examples.
Other instances include the strange noises emitted by the Egyptian Memnon Colossi, the singing sands of China and the ancient earthquake detector of Zhang Heng that used an ingenious assembly of vessels, balls and metal frogs to determine the direction of a distant tremor. Unfortunately, in this last case (and at times elsewhere), Goldsmith does not provide references that would enable a reader to study the original story further, nor does he give Zhang’s dates (78–139 C.E.) or even the dynasty during which he lived (the Eastern Han), which would help us grasp the context of this intriguing example.
Then, too, a fundamental ambiguity pervades his topic. The ordinary definitions of noise as “unwanted sound” and “sound out of place” lead in divergent directions. The book’s title, Discord, somewhat misleadingly connotes dissonance in its musical sense, an important artistic element in composition, rather than the cacophonous qualities suggested by the wordnoise. Although 17th-century street cries were thought noisy at the time, Orlando Gibbons’s 1611 madrigal makes “The Cries of London” into a beautiful work of art evoking the soundscape of his city, now lost to our ears. Despite Goldsmith’s title, his main interest is the combination of ambient sounds to form the more or less irritating mélange we usually call “noise.”
Thus, the greater part of the book concerns noise’s relation to nausea, its etymological root: sound not just out of place, but unacceptable and fundamentally disturbing. Goldsmith underlines the fundamental scientific problems in trying to define noise levels in any universal way, which arise precisely because of the perceptual and attitudinal components of human hearing. He clarifies different systems of sound measurement, especially the ways the decibel unit (dB) can be differently weighted to mimic the auditory response of humans (as with decibel A-weighting, or dBA) or even of other species. He also delves into the international politics behind the struggle to agree on universal units.
Goldsmith concentrates on the centuries since 1800, the epoch of ever more pervasive industrial and vehicular noises. His rich and diverse examples illustrate the ways different regions and nations became conscious of noise issues, then gradually began to formulate and execute noise-abatement strategies. He contrasts varying responses and situations, from Thomas Carlyle’s invective against the “vast shoals” of noise-makers through the relatively greater tolerance for noise during the exigencies of wartime.
The level of historical completeness in his treatments is, however, somewhat variable. For instance, Goldsmith gives considerable prominence to John Connell, the founder of the Noise Abatement Society in the United Kingdom. But when Goldsmith turns to the advent of supersonic transport aircraft (SST) such as the Concorde, he completely omits William A. Shurcliff, a physicist who played an important role in the banning of SST flights over North America. Arguably, this was at least as significant as the British Anti-Concorde Project that Goldsmith discusses and far more decisive than his vague description of “people living near John F. Kennedy airport in New York who organized themselves into a protest movement with international impact,” as if this happened apart from the leadership of Shurcliff and other Americans. Having wisely chosen a historical approach with many European and international examples, Goldsmith would have deepened the value of his book by a more complete treatment of the historical context and figures.
But such flaws should be weighed against the excellent qualities manifest at many points throughout the book. Discord is an extremely attractive and accessible, well-written and engaging book, an excellent starting place for readers who want to understand the physics and politics of noise.
Peter Pesic is Tutor and Musician-in-Residence at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A recipient of the Peano Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he is the author of Sky in a Bottle (The MIT Press, 2005).
Short interview on Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3. iPlayer link:
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