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Rarified Air Makes Noise at Building 54

By Benjamin Gleitzman

Like any layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, the ionosphere provides an abundance of benefits to the human race, from assisting radio communication to creating the vibrant Aurora Borealis. What’s next for this atmospheric behemoth? This week Carolyn J. Bodle SM ’05, in conjunction with Haystack Laboratory, is broadcasting ionospheric sonatas from MIT’s Green Building, home to the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

If thunder is the bowling of the gods, then you may hear the sound of the gods’ pinsetter emanating from Building 54 tonight. By translating waves of plasma running through the Earth’s upper atmosphere into audible sounds, the installation transforms an abstraction of science into a personal experience.

Captivated spectators slow their pace near the installation as they encounter its sound, searching for the source of the unfamiliar reverberations. Some liken the experience to an “airplane circling overhead,” but the low, oscillating rumbling is perhaps best described as the sound of a “big didgeridoo.”

“I hope it inspires,” said Bodle, whose background is in the visual arts and architecture. The project is a “collaboration between scientists and artists,” showing how science and art can coexist.

Although primarily an artistic experience, the bizarre noises reverberating over the Charles are deeply rooted in science. The source is “pink noise,” obtained when ionospheric plasma, excited from the sun’s rays, releases energy by a variety of means including faint ion-acoustic waves. Throughout the day, the ionosphere absorbs and then emits different amounts of energy from the sun, producing a pulsating hum of dynamic pitch.

Waves elicit many responses

If you have had the good fortune to stroll past the show, you may have encountered an unusual milieu surrounding Building 54. Clumps of onlookers, necks strained toward the sky, gaze up toward the 35-channel speaker system mounted on the south side of Cambridge’s tallest registered building.

This wonder of science, broadcast daily, has left some MIT students and faculty puzzled during their lunchtime commute. Those who have come to witness the noise share the experience like a close secret between friends. Casual passersby either ignore the deep resonance altogether, no doubt contemplating their hectic lives, or appeared baffled by the scene.

As a visual artist, Bodle has created a musical exhibit that focuses on the artistic presentation in addition to the sounds themselves. So far, viewers have demonstrated a “great response,” but have also had “a few complaints from occupants inside the building,” Bodle said.

However you choose to categorize the experience, Carrie Bodle’s vision for the project is finally being realized after long stages of planning and revision. “We had to take many precautions” to protect the building, she said, “especially with the clamping system and nylon sheets to pad the speakers against the walls.”

Begun in October, “Sonification / Listening Up” was intended to run in May but experienced setbacks with regard to safety. After issues with the clamping system were resolved, workers along with a skeleton team of friends and MIT students assembled and mounted the revised apparatus last week.

Listening to the sound of the upper atmosphere may not improve problem set grades, but students and others nonetheless pause to listen to the sound of science being united with art. With an ever-increasing detachment from nature and the outside world, it may sometimes take the exotic thrum of ionospheric waves to make us stop and notice our surroundings.

“Sound Off” will be presented this Friday, Sept. 16 from 5–7 p.m. at the Green Building. Admission is free and food will be provided.