#517: Science!

Getting More Tale #517:  Science!

Never underestimate the power of science.  Without science, we would not have the electric guitar.  Science allows us to analyse wavelengths and wires and figure out why a piano sounds so good.  With the tools of science, we can examine how music effects the human brain.  With science, we can battle ignorance!

That in mind, here are some interesting science facts that we gleaned from the September 2015 issue of Discover magazine, in an article by Jim Sullivan.

You might wonder how singers like Paul Stanley or Freddie Mercury managed to sound as incredible as they did.  It was the result of many factors, but both Paul and Freddie had strong vocal cords.  The muscles in the vocal tissues do the work.  Great singers have incredible control over these muscles, and take good care of them.  They work by increasing and decreasing air resistance, by opening and closing.  The compression and decompression of air creates waves…sound waves!  Now think about the range of sound that the human voice can produce.  It’s a very wide spectrum of sounds.  Think about the complexity of those muscles and the nerves that control them!  Get this — there are a few throat singers who are able to create up to four notes simultaneously!

Freddie Mercury was also probably dominated by the right side of his brain.  Current theories state that singing is mostly controlled by the right, while language is in the left.  Possible evidence of this can be found in some stroke victims.  Some cannot speak, but can still sing.  Another example that I remember from my childhood is country singer Mel Tillis.  He was in a Burt Reynolds comedy, Cannonball Run.  A young 10 year old me liked his character because he talked funny:  he had a stutter.  My dad told me, “He has that stutter in real life.  He has a really hard time speaking, but he can sing like a bird.”  I couldn’t believe it.  My dad told me an old story, that Mel Tillis was talking on the phone with somebody and just couldn’t speak.  His stutter was so bad that he couldn’t finish a sentence.  So instead he began singing.  Isn’t that a fascinating story?

How about volume?  Well, it turns out that the average human speaking voice is about 60 decibels.  According to the Guinness Book, there’s a lady in England named Jill Drake who can scream at 129 decibels.  That’s about the same levels measured at an AC/DC concert.  Perhaps Jill Drake should consider auditioning for the lead singer job in that band!

Singing is a special talent, and I’m not very good.  I have poor control and I’m constantly flat or sharp.  Why is this?  Is it my vocal cords?  According to another Discover article by James Dziezynski from July 2014, not really.  A study showed that it’s probably the brain.  The condition is called imitative deficit, and if you’re a bad singer like me, you probably have it. Essentially, our brains can hear and identify a note correctly. When we try to move our vocal cords to hit that same note, we can’t. The brain’s signals get scrambled. It consistently commands the vocal cords to hit a different note, no matter how hard we struggle with it. However, all is not lost. Like anything else, you can re-wire your brain with practice. Lots of practice, preferably with guidance.

This is heartening to know. There is hope, even for a talentless schmuck like me! Thank you, science.

#492: The Golden Records

golden 2

GETTING MORE TALE #492: The Golden Records

In 1977, two unique records were pressed that are literally out of this world.

voyager 2The Voyager space probes (1 and 2) were designed for exploration of our outer solar system.  Never to return, the probes were built for the “Grand Planetary Tour”:  a rare alignment of the outer planets that allowed the probes to use gravity to slingshot around and visit them all.  The Voyager spacecraft transmitted to Earth some of the most breathtaking images ever taken.  For the first time, Saturn’s rings could be seen up close, and surprised us with more layers and complexity (including the ‘F’ ring that is kinked) than anyone anticipated.  Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was discovered to be a gargantuan storm, three Earths wide!

Although the probes were not really intended for long term scientific observations beyond their initial missions, their plutonium generators will continue to provide power for another decade.  Clever scientists have managed to use the probes’ limited sensors to observe what goes on at the edge of the solar system.  Both probes are now well on their way out of our home system, and into interstellar space.  Once their generators die, they will go silent forever.  They are now the furthest man-made objects from the Earth and will remain so forever, unless we find the money to invest further in deep space exploration.

Even when the Voyager probes finally go dark forever, their mission will still be ongoing.  Both Voyagers were equipped with special antiquated technology that can tell alien civilizations a little bit about the troubled species that launched these probes in the first place.  If an alien race ever finds our probes (the fictional Voyager 6 was found by a machine race in Star Trek I) then they will find the Golden Records.

The Golden Records, surely the most priceless LPs in the universe, contain a wealth of information selected by a committee headed by the late Dr. Carl Sagan.  Each record is encased in a gold sleeve.  Included is a visual depiction of how to play the record, an easy task for an advanced race.  Extracting sound from the grooves should be a simple process given the instructions.  The needle and cartridge are already included.  The records are made copper, plated in gold, one of the most corrosion resistant materials known to man.

What is included on the records?  A variety of audio for one, designed to give a glimpse into human culture.  First is a greeting in 55 Earth languages.  Then, there are “Sounds of Earth”:  birds, dogs, frogs, cars and trains, and more.  Most interesting to music fans is the selection of compositions from around the world.  There are 90 minutes of different pieces, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (USA), Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto (Germany), jazz and blues, and many kinds of world music.   (The records are designed to be played at 16⅔ revolutions per minutes, enabling a longer play time.)  In a classic example of record company stupidity, the Beatles were excluded from the golden LPs, because EMI wouldn’t let NASA use “Here Comes the Sun”.  Perhaps they were afraid aliens would bootleg it without paying for it.  (This serves as a fine case of EMI standing for “Every Mistake Imaginable”, as some artists refer to them.)  After the music is an hour of brain wave recordings, of Carl Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan.

There are even 116 images encoded on the disc.  Some of these are intended to help with calibration and interpretation.  The rest are images of Earth:  DNA strings, children, families, landscapes, animals, houses, cities, spacecraft and more.  Tellingly, there are no images of one of human-kind’s most popular activities:  warfare.  Only good impressions were wanted, meaning the Voyager Records contain much false advertising.   The images are encoded in the form of 512 vertical lines, in colour and black and white.

What if one wanted to listen to the rarest records in the universe?  What to do then?  Last year, NASA uploaded the audio contents of the records to SoundCloud.   Now anyone on Earth with an internet connection and speakers can hear the greetings that we sent to the stars in 1977.  Hopefully one day, someone else from another world will be able to listen as well.

Click here for the NASA SoundCloud page, and scroll down for the Voyager recordings!

#464: “Would anybody tell me if I was gettin’…stupider?”


GETTING MORE TALE #464: “Would anybody tell me if I was gettin’…stupider?”

Can popular music make you dumber?  That depends on who you listen to.

Youngsters growing up in the 60’s and 70’s would be forgiven for thinking that a “light year” was a unit of time.

“And here I sit, hand on the telephone, hearing a voice I’d known, a couple of light years ago.”

Joan Baez wrote those words, which certainly paint an image in your mind, but she misused the words “light years”.  A light year isn’t a unit of time.  It’s a unit of distance.  A light year is how far light can travel in a vacuum in one year:  It is 9,460,730,472,580,800 meters.   Such mistakes were common; even George Lucas made the mistake in the first Star Wars.  He wrote that the Millenium Falcon is the ship that made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs.  A parsec is not a unit of time.  It too is a measurement of distance – 3.26 light years!*

If you’re a Billy Joel fan, you’re probably familiar with “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”.  There have been a lot of myths and half-truths about the Kid in cinema, but Joel wasn’t aiming for accuracy.  Therefore it didn’t bother him to write that the Kid was hung, when he was actually shot by Pat Garrett.

These kinds of mistakes are not terrible sins.  Most people would be forgiven for not knowing how Billy the Kid died.  Nobody is getting their science lessons from Joan Baez.  However, it is important to take note.  Kids today are impressionable, and sometimes take the words of their pop heroes as gospel.  Let us hope this is not the case with the rapper who calls himself B.o.B.

Now, B.o.B. is one of those folks who does not believe the Earth is a sphere.  B.o.B. believes the Earth is a flat disc — he is what they call a “Flat Earther”.  Forget everything you know about the universe, about how gravity works, or even that trip you took to Australia two summers ago.  According to B.o.B., whose science credentials include dropping out of school in the ninth grade, “I didn’t wanna believe it either.”  However, “there’s no way u [sic] can see all the evidence and not know.”

I wonder if the Flat Earthers and the Hollow Earthers ever get together for a good old-fashioned rumble to decide who is right?

Recently, B.o.B. has picked a fight with Neil deGrasse Tyson, world renowned astrophysicist and surely one of the smartest people alive.  B.o.B. questioned the “international laws” that “prevent you” from exploring Antarctica and the north pole.  “What’s there to hide?” asks B.o.B.  I don’t know what international laws he’s talking about.  The Top Gear guys drove their cars to the (magnetic) north pole without violating any laws.  Nobody “disappeared” Jeremy Clarkson afterwards (though some would like to for other reasons).

Clearly frustrated with his attempts to talk sense and science into the rapper, Tyson tweeted “Flat Earth is a problem only when people in charge think that way. No law stops you from regressively basking in it.”  In response, B.o.B. replied in the way he knows best: in song.  His brand new song “Flatline” mocks Tyson for his stance.  The cover art is an aerial shot of a city.  The lyrics refer to science as a cult, and advise Neil to “loosen up your vest”.  Tyson responded with class:  “Duude — to be clear: Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Don’t listen to B.o.B. for your science facts.  How do we know the world is round?  Because B.o.B. uploaded his track to Soundcloud.  He did this via the internet, which people connect to every day using satellites.  These satellites circle in geostationary orbits, something impossible if the Earth were a disc.  In fact, we have been using satellites since 1957.  Unfortunately in this age of “I only believe in what I can see,” it seems B.o.B. has taken the technology for granted. “Flat line, flat line, you fooled us for the last time,” he raps cluelessly.

Still confused?  Here’s deGrasse Tyson.  Take it away, Neil!

B.o.B. sampled this video (the part where Tyson trips over his words at 40 seconds in) in his song to mock the scientist.


* The Star Wars expanded universe retroactively explained this by saying that Han Solo did make the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, by achieving the shortest distance through a treacherous region of space.



#445: An Orgasm For the Brain

GETTING MORE TALE #445: An Orgasm For the Brain

The Boss at the Record Store used to have a little office in the back of one of our stores.  The walls seemed paper-thin.  You could figure out what he was doing back there from the sounds, especially when he had a cold.  His sneezes were epic.   They were monolithic in scale, and sounded like they were a tremendous relief each time.


One afternoon, he was having a particularly active bout of the sneezes, and the frequency and strength of them combined were impossible to ignore.  One of my customers noticed and chuckled.

“Sounds like that guy is having a good time back there,” said the man.

I know the feeling a good, refreshing sneeze too.  “Yeah,” I replied.  “He’s had a cold all week but he’s really good at sneezing.”

“No, seriously,” the man persisted.  “A sneeze is like an orgasm for your brain.  That guy back there is basically having a whole bunch of brain orgasms right now.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I answered, “Wow.  I did not know that!”

“You learn something every day!” said the man, who went on to do his music shopping.

Is there any truth to this?  Or is this just one of those wild tales that customers used to tell me?

The folks over at livescience have the answer.  “This myth isn’t worth the price of a tissue,” they say, but also add, “Connections do exist, however.”

For one, a sneeze may release endorphins. However, “Although supporting literature remains sparse, cases have been reported of men and women who sneeze when sexually aroused. Doctors suspect that the phenomenon might arise from a case of crossed wires in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates a number of automatic functions in the body, including “waking up” the genitals during arousal. The nose, like the genitals, contains erectile tissue.”

I was not aware of that. As my old customer said, you learn something new every day!