Learning science through sound engineering and acoustics

A recent article in Discover Magazine mentions the evidence that early human civilizations had a lot of skill in the art of sound engineering. For example, at Chavin de Huantar in Peru, there exists a set of temples. Thousands of years ago, priests would blow their conch shells here. A complex of ventilation ducts, hallways and sound-reflecting surfaces were designed to amplify the sound and confuse listeners about its origins.

There is a growing body of evidence that early humans around the globe developed ingenious ways of embellishing and channeling sound.

Science tutors don't always get into this stuff, because it's generally not a part of learning science for school. But if you have doubts about the relevance of sound waves to biology and physics, try this quick experiment:

  1. Smile big, and blow air out through your teeth.
  2. Put your hand out at arm's length, palm facing you.
  3. Slowly move your palm towards and away from your face. You'll hear a whooshing sound that gets higher and lower as you change the distance
  4. Now try walking towards a wall with your eyes closed, using just this sound. Get as close as you can, without hitting the wall.
  5. Practice step 4, but gradually use less air. Soon you'll be able to "see" the wall with your ears, making almost no sound.

You've just performed echolocation, the same skill that bats use as they hunt for food in the dark. There's a growing body of research suggesting that you rely on echolocation far more than you think. For most of us, this happens in subtle ways. But people like Daniel Kish have honed this skill to an astounding level:

Kish's organization, World Access for the Blind, has helped people walk around and even ride bikes, scooters and skateboards without the need for sight.

Most humans are highly visual creatures. You're looking at symbols on a screen right now, and most of the information in your mind comes through your eyes. But your brain has an incredible degree of neuroplasticity. That is, you can adapt and develop skills and sensitivities that seem almost magical. The visual sections of the brain will adapt and support other senses if you lose your sight. This works even if you're just blindfolded for an hour or so.

Learning science is about connections.

So what does all this have to do with learning science?

Glad you asked. I've tried to connect a story on anthropology and archaeology with sound engineering. I gave you a video, a hands-on experiment, and connections to a brave person performing sports in the real world. We went from temples of ancient Peru to the inner workings of the human brain, all in less than five minutes.

When you are learning science, you can assimilate information more quickly when you connect a lot of different ideas across different media. If this post caught your interest, you'll remember the meaning of the word "echolocation" for a long time.

Whenever you're trying to study biology, ask yourself a few questions: How does this relate to other topics I've studied? How does it shed light on things that interest me? Is there a real-world example of this topic?

Learning science is a never-ending quest. Every time you look at a phenomenon you can get new insight and a different perspective. If you sign up for a free weekly science learning tip, you will pick up some great short cuts.

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