Science


Over the past four years or so, I’ve been creating a major new work, which I’m pleased to say is now completely finished – aside from one further process: a production run to render it to Bluray so I can make it available to the world. To this end, I’m holding a crowdfunding campaign over at Pozible. There are some really nice rewards involved (most of them including a copy of the final Bluray itself). If this is something you think you’d like, chip in and help me make it a physical object. Also feel free to copy the link on to friends & other interested parties. All help will be greatly appreciated!

So at last, my mysterious project is complete.

You saw Laura a couple of days ago as she arrived, straight out of the box. She was not quite as perfect as I would have liked, so the first step involved some surgery…

As did the second step. ‘Trust me Laura,’ I said ‘I’m a doctor’. Well, I’m a Reverend, and that’s as good as, right? I mean, with God the Cow on my side, how can I do wrong? A little release of intracranial pressure…

Ah, that’s better. And now for the pièce de résistance… And Binauralaura (Laura to her friends) is ready to begin to listen…

Binauralaura is my new binaural recording rig. Here begins the edumacation part of this post, so those who came for the titillation can now go watch Fox news and eat donuts.

To start, you should know that when you hear a stereo recording of sound or music – pretty much any recording – it is presented to your ear in a very different way to the way in which you actually hear in reality. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that most sound recordings, and most music recordings in particular, use a somewhat artificial method to render their stereophonic sonic landscape. In a standard electronically-reproduced stereo domain, the stereo image is created from two point sources – your two hifi speakers, or two headphone speakers – each of which is fed by a discrete channel of recorded sound. All sound in a stereo field is thus contained in two separate, but interconnected, recordings – one for left and one for right. In simple terms, if a sound is only in the left channel, it will appear to come from your left. If it is only in the right channel, it will appear to come from your right. In almost all modern recordings, when an engineer wishes to make a sound feel like it is originating elsewhere in the stereo image – slightly left of centre, for instance – it is made slightly louder in the left channel than it is in the right. To make it appear to be right in front of you – or ‘centre’ as we say – then the volume is made exactly equal for both the left and the right channels. For over half a century, this result has been achieved by ‘panning’ the sound on a mixing console. A panner is simply a control that varies the amount of signal (or loudness) added to each channel.

In the real world, though, our ears don’t judge the position of a sound in space solely by its loudness. Certainly, loudness is one aspect of the mechanism, but there are numerous other factors in play. The principal one is a component of time. If you hear a dog barking somewhere ahead of you, and slightly to the left, one of your ears will be receiving a slightly greater sound pressure (loudness) than the other. But crucially, that same ear will be hearing the sound very slightly before your other ear does. The human brain can, in fact, differentiate time differences smaller than 10 microseconds between your two ears, and it is that ability which allows us to aurally locate objects in space with an accuracy of about 1 degree.(i)(ii) Up until very recently, this time component could not be easily recreated in a studio mixing environment, and since – like most things – the recording process is a trade-off between the achievement of perfection and economic imperative, the old panning paradigm is still alive and well (and dominant) in modern sound mixing facilities. I would make a rough guess that 99.9% of all music and sound you hear is rendered to stereo with crude analogue panning.

Now, some of you may be ahead of me slightly here, and interject: ‘But Reverend, what about a recording made solely with two microphones? There’s no mixing console involved there (so no artificial panning) and the sound of any object off centre to the microphones must arrive at slightly different times for each? Surely that’s preserved in a recording?’

Well, yes indeed. Two separate microphones (or a coincident stereo pair, to use the lingo) will indeed preserve the delay times inherent in the scene being recorded but they still don’t hear the world like our ears do.

The important thing to understand at this point is that when it comes to human hearing, our eardrums – our ‘microphones’ if you like – are only part of the story. There are several other key players in the process, the most important of which is our brain. Our brain and ears work together to ‘hear’ the world, and the way we hear is a lot more complex and clever than you probably ever stopped to think about.

One thing that every one of us knows (because our brain figures it out pretty much as soon as we are born) is that our ears are separated from one another by a head. Everything we experience in the realm of natural hearing is mitigated by this big noggin right in the middle of things. And our brain calculates our aural experience by taking it into account as it forms our sonic picture of the world. Likewise, we are accustomed to hearing our surroundings via two fleshy reflectors that funnel the sound toward the vibrating membranes that actually detect the sound waves. The complicated contours of our ears – the pinnae – don’t simply look like they do for decoration. The whorls and cavities of the ear surface impose certain kinds of characteristics on the sound that reaches them, and these help us with sound localisation, and, to a certain extent, with the perception of fidelity.

Which brings me all the way back to Binauralaura. Laura’s head contains a pair of high fidelity omnidirectional microphones that sit in her ears just at about the place where the outside part of the human ear canal would start.(iii)

Her silicon pinnae are created from a CT scan of real human ears and these and her head create an aural ‘shadow’ which will match, in a generic way, the listening field of most humans.(iv) This means that a recording made with Binauralaura, will sound about as real as an audio recording can sound.(v)

So if binaural recording is so magnificent, why isn’t it used for everything? Well, there is, of course, a catch. The binaural effect can only properly be discerned by wearing headphones. For the binaural image to remain coherent, the sound for one ear must not interfere with the sound for the other. Additionally, in order to avoid a doubling of the head and pinnae shadow (one gained from the recording, and then a second from the listener’s own head and pinnae), the reproduced sound needs to be played back as close to the listener’s ear canal entrance as possible. The most expedient method to do this is via headphones or earbuds.(vi) Wearing headphones to properly hear binaural sound is, in fact, analogous to the requirement to wear glasses to see 3D images (indeed, binaural sound is often described as ‘3D’ or ‘holophonic’ sound).

I’ve had some opportunities to take Laura out for a bit of a test spin, and so far, the results are pretty nice. Here’s a short clip. Remember – wear headphones or earbuds to listen to it. One thing you will immediately notice is the clarity and and detail of the sound space. If your hearing is fair, you may also detect one of the extraordinary features of binaural sound – something you will not hear in a conventional stereophonic recording – and that is the ability to localise sound height. Have a listen now, and see why I went to all the trouble to build Binauralaura.

Download Laura Listens

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Footnotes:

  1. It’s more accurate if the sound is in front of you. As it approaches the extreme sides, the ability to pinpoint its location decreases. []
  2. As an aside, there is a species of fly which is so small that its ears are too close together for its head to have any effect on time delays between them. Instead, it has evolved an entirely different and novel way of localizing sound. The trick it uses (its ears are physically coupled together, allowing it to detect sub-microsecond delays) is currently being explored as a possible microphonic technique. []
  3. Not where the ear drums are – there’s a technical reason for this that I won’t go into here, but there are versions of binaural heads that do place the microphones right at the end of the ear canal. []
  4. It probably has occurred to you that most humans have small differences in the shapes and sizes of their ears. Shouldn’t this mean that one person hears differently to another? Well, yes, that’s right. To make a really convincing binaural recording for yourself, you would ideally put microphones in your own ears, and record with your own pinnae and head shape. Indeed, there are methods for doing this. To me, it does seem rather sonically masturbatory, though… []
  5. There are numerous other impediments to capturing a sound recording that would appear as real as reality. Mostly this has to do with the way our brain constantly interacts with the environment – not just the sound itself – to modify what we hear. And, in fact, what we think we hear is nothing like what we physcially hear. This problem is never really likely to ba addressed with a mechanical recording system. Until we have some kind of direct ‘neural recorder’ you can never really expect to experience a sound recording that is like really hearing something. []
  6. There are ways of achieving a serviceable binaural illusion in stereo speaker systems, but they are expensive, dependent on room acoustics, and require the listener to sit in a ‘sweet’ spot. Needless to say, all this is even less appealing than wearing headphones. []

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This is my new assistant. I am about to augment her for my secret project. Hint: she is not a Roman.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s science news pages are currently carrying a story about the discovery of a ‘rogue’ planet(i) ‘wandering all alone through deep space without a host star’. As far as such stories go, it’s an interesting astronomy tidbit, evoking, in the words of Philippe Delorme from France’s Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics, a ‘striking image of orphaned worlds, drifting in the emptiness of space’.

The editors of the ABC science pages(ii), however, have taken the view that readers will not have the wits nor imagination to be able to conjure up the striking image for themselves, and so have helpfully provided an artist’s impression to help them along.(iii)

I am not a big fan of the artist’s impression.

How much does this ‘impression’ tell you about the reality of the event in question? Would you say that it’s reasonable to expect that, should you be able to hop in a fast spaceship and fly off to planet CFBDSIR2149 (as it is catchily named), this artist’s impression would give you a vague idea of what you might see? This romantic milky sapphire marble swimming in a luminous sea of misty cerulean stars? Well, my friends, you’d be mightily disappointed. CFBDSIR2149 does not orbit any sun, and so does not reflect any light. In addition, it does not emit much, if any, visible light of its own either, being detected as it was by M. Delorme, via infrared radiation. The Wikipedia entry on CFBDSIR2149 has this to say:

In visible light the object is so cool that it would only shine dimly with a deep red colour when seen close-up.

All things considered, here is a better artist’s impression of what you might see should you ever be in the close proximity of CFBDSIR2149.

Yep. It’s never going to feature on the ’10 Most Visually Impressive Planets You Must Visit Before You Die’ list, that’s for sure.

So what use, actually, is this artist’s impression? It tells us nothing at all about the reality of CFBDSIR2149,(iv) substituting actual facts with a whole lot of visual speculation and even just plain old untruths. Why not paint a picture of the Death Star or a Borg Cube – ‘impressionistically’ speaking, either would be just as informative. Worse still, whatever mental image we might have formed of a darkened planetary body drifting forlornly across the unimaginable dark nothingness of the interstellar void is now indelibly replaced by the fantasy of an azure Xmas bauble that has no relation to anything.

Here is an artist’s impression of what I believe should be the fate of editors who indulge in artist’s impressions.(v)

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Footnotes:

  1. Is it just me, or does the term ‘rogue planet’ automatically conjure for anyone else Wagnerian-type music and sinister intentions? I mean, it’s not like it set out to storm the universe and take no prisoners. Why is it not simply an ‘orphan’ planet, or a ‘lost’ planet? What’s actually rogue about it? []
  2. Along with just about every other outlet carrying the story… []
  3. It is worth noting here that when the story first went up, the image was presented without the explanatory caption. []
  4. C’mon! Astronomers! Where are the days of imagination when planets had names? Are we to expect that if you were doing the solar system anew we’d be living on 3 and sending little rovers off to 4? How BORING is that? []
  5. Yes, I am aware of the recursive nature of what I did there. []

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CERN, in Geneva, has been holding over the last few days a conference called ‘The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?’

Decoding this for you: it’s a convening of scientists and various religious commentators to attempt to find a way to square religion with the uncomfortable facts that science throws up to challenge it.

After pausing for just a moment to reflect on whether Betteridge’s Law should be applied to the conference title, let’s hear what the first speaker at the conference, Andrew Pinsent had on his mind according to BBC News Europe. Science, he said, risked:

“…trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

Of course, he does not really mean ‘philosophy’ here, because science has always engaged with philosophy, from the very earliest of Greek knowledge at least, and probably before that. No, he has lumped philosophy in there in order to stack it squarely on the side of religion and divorce it from science because he needs to do that to set up his argument. As is almost de rigeur for religious thinkers(i) these days, he starts by depicting science as a mechanical process devoid of any wonder or beauty, so that he can make those things the sole domain of religion; science will make us into machines, religion is the only chance we have to stay human.(ii)

Why do religious people think like this? It’s profoundly offensive for a person such as myself who has no religious belief to hear that I can’t, apparently, experience the world as anything other than cold mechanical processes. Does Mr Pinsent have no clue at all that by voicing this opinion he is saying ‘Those of us who hold religious beliefs are better than the rest of you’?

You can see that I am predisposed already to think that this CERN conference is likely to be a pile of horseshit. Mr Pinsent goes on:

‘Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas’

What a brainless pronouncement. This man is confusing science with industrial manufacture. Why is he speaking at a conference at CERN? What does he even mean by ‘science in isolation… [is] not so good for producing ideas’? Isolation from what? Its ideas maybe??? WTF?(iii)

Further down in the BBC article we hear from co-organiser of the conference Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, who said that the discovery of the Higgs particle:

… raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer.

Yeah, and you know what Canon Dr Wilton? The Anglican Church can’t answer them either. Nor can any other religion on the planet. Making up a story does not count as an answer.

Another of the speakers at the conference, Professor John Lennox from Oxford University, is on record as having taken Stephen Hawking to task for asserting that we do not need to entertain the idea of a ‘God’ setting the Universe in motion:

When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?

Who lit the blue touch paper if not God? Oh, how about a rainbow-coloured unicorn, or a jolly green elf? They’re at least as plausible as candidates for holding the matches as the Christian God. The fact is, the beginnings of the Universe are shrouded in mystery. Mystery, as in ‘We don’t know – it’s a mystery’ not ‘It’s a mystery and therefore it’s the God (that I personally believe in) that was written about in an ancient book full of irrational beliefs!’ We’ve had other things that were shrouded in mystery in the past and they’re not now. Many of those things (the Earth-centered Universe; the order of life on Earth; lightning; the processes of human birth, of the cardiovascular system, of the brain; the giant fossil bones in river beds) were once mysteries, in just the same way as religion sees the beginning of the Universe now. It is a constrained mind that can’t make the equation here.(iv)

This kind of nutty religious noodling simply makes me furious. These people don’t want a serious philosophical debate, no matter how they may be couching it. Having a genuine philosophical discussion about these kinds of big questions might be of some value. Having a religious discussion is entirely worthless because they’ve already made up their mind that they know the answer.

Canon Dr Wilton sums up his hopes for the CERN conference by saying:

By the end… we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

By which he means ‘I’m never going to change my mind, because I hold an irrational belief that can’t be swayed no matter what. But maybe I can get scientists to cut me some slack and stop being such a nuisance with their infernal ‘facts’.’

Canon Dr Wilton has no intention whatsoever of ‘finding a new way to understand his position’ – not in any meaningful way, in any case. Faced with a mystery, he just calls ‘God’ and that’s the end of it. That’s not how science works. Science is able to entertain the idea of a mystery without making a pronouncement. Or, science can contemplate the proposition that an old bloke with a white beard set things in motion. Or that it’s turtles all the way down. Or that we’re in someone else’s computer simulation.

The difference is that scientists just don’t merely presuppose one of those things and set about trying to convince everyone by talking it up. Science needs evidence, something religion is remarkably short on.

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Addendum: As I was writing this over the weekend, the BBC site published an update to the conference. It was refreshing to see, at last, some thoughts from an actual scientist – physicist and all-round sensible person Lawrence Krauss:

One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don’t. You can’t disprove the theory of God. The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty. That’s why science makes progress and religion doesn’t.

Contrast that to this further waffle from the Professor John Lennox, who we heard from above:

If the atheists are right, the mind that does science… is the end product of a mindless unguided process.Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn’t trust it.

I doubt Professor Lennox has even the faintest clue how utterly stupid a declaration like that sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘But look at how amazing humans are! That can’t just be a product of evolution!’ Well, Professor Lennox, it can be and it is. Your lack of understanding of how things work does not, as I’ve said, imply the existence of a God, no matter how much mystery there is in the process.

Andrew Pinsent also features in the update, once again attempting to create a division between science and philosophy, as if scientists can’t be philosophers. Just look at his language – it is careful and insidious. Lawrence Krauss, by contrast, makes it clear that the issue here is science and religion, not philosophy. If you’ve read any of Krauss’s books, you will know that, like all good scientists, he’s no stranger to philosophy.

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Thanks to acce245 for throwing this one my way.

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Footnotes:

  1. I use the word advisedly, because I actually don’t believe many of these people really think. []
  2. Whatever ‘human’ actually means. We are now completely augmented by the science we have created. We are already ‘machines’. Maybe Mr Pinsent thinks we should go back to the pre-fire veldt. Oh wait, we were using tools even then. []
  3. I’ll allow that Mr Pinsent might have been quoted out of context here – it’s hard to tell in the BBC article. It goes on to tell us that Mr Pinsent says we ‘need to get back to the ideas of Einstein’ – as if somehow there are no great thinkers in science anymore. This is the comment of a person with a profound lack of knowledge of science and scientists. It’s a mark of people who want to seem like they’re talking knowledgably about science to refer to Albert Einstein – the only great scientist they know. Mr Pinsent, you might like to read up on some of the great modern ideas people of science: Richard Feynman; Roger Penrose; Geoffrey West; Stephen Hawking; Garret Lisi – oh, and I could go on for pages… But when you’ve finished, then tell me with any earnestness that science is no good for producing ideas. []
  4. And, aside from that – as I’ve written on these pages before – it is entirely possible that at some stage or another we might run up against the limits of human comprehension. There is nothing that says that we will necessarily be able to understand the Universe. This is no license to presuppose God, however. []

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While we’re on the subject of people misunderstanding science, the Guardian reports that American illusionist and ‘endurance artist’ David Blaine is in the middle of a stunt that has him standing for 3 days and 3 nights on a platform inside a 1 million volt electrical field generated by a Tesla coil.

‘I have a chance of surviving,’ said Blaine in a previous Guardian interview, an observation which, if you know anything about the science involved, is something of an understatement. Yes, he does have a ‘chance of surviving’ – pretty close to 100% chance, in fact, as long as he remains inside the metal suit he’s wearing, which creates for him a perfect Faraday Cage.

The vox pops from the Guardian video once again demonstrate the utter lack of science education in the general public. Says one overly impressed bystander:

They say it’s a million volts? Nobody could take that. Nobody could take more than 300 volts! People gonna die right away. Seriously.

No, seriously Mr Punter, you should brush up on your basic physics. You’re at greater risk of being mugged in the audience than David Blaine is from being electrocuted.

Really, the most impressive stunt being performed here is Blaine attempting to stay awake for 72 hours. That’s not easy. But even if he does fall asleep, he is protected from physical falling by a safety harness, so the biggest damage he’s ever likely to experience is to his reputation.

Tetherd Cow Risk Assessment: you could let your granny do it. It’s at least as safe as letting her pour whisky over her chest.

UPDATE: Here’s a REAL daredevil, doing something actually impressive with high voltage (as part of his job, no less).

Suck on that David Blaine.

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