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The Sound Of Science

ivan-elephant.jpgAt the Silver Spring Metro Station just north of Washington, D.C., because of some misalignment of mechanical parts or wear or some other mechanical flaw, an escalator that transports riders from the entrance level to the train platform periodically makes a most unexpected sound. It is alluring, sonorous, and oddly familiar. It starts out with a low intensity comprising mostly a high but pleasant frequency atop a subtle lower pitch foundation. Then with an increasing rate of attack and intensity, it crescendos to an exuberant peak before going silent and giving way to the background muhmuh-muhmuh-muhmuh of the escalator’s machinery. Every 10 seconds or so, another clarion burst reverbs through the station.

When I first heard this most welcome sonic motif, my eyes darted around the station’s interior, searching, without anticipating success, for an elephant. But when I heard the trumpet call again, and then again, during a single escalator descent from the station’s platform, I knew it was a troubled machine that was making the arresting music. That realization, by way of the inscrutable neural logic that underlies streams of thought, opened up a memory ingrained a decade ago. In the memory, I am strolling with Craig Venter, the most visible of the Big Biology visionaries, in what was then his brand new, football-field-sized DNA-sequencing facility at the then-brand-new genomics firm Celera in Rockville, Md. This was the place where Venter would execute his bid to beat the government in the quest for a completely sequenced human genome. Venter didn’t know it, but what struck me most as we passed by row after row of the latest and greatest sequencing machines was the musical drone the machines were making. It was a vast, mechano-Gregorian chant hovering close to what I estimated was A above middle C.

Ever since then, I have made it a point, when visiting a lab, to listen. Each one of these places of discovery has a unique assembly of instruments, a one-of-a-kind orchestra of cooling fans, pumps, stirring motors, robotic sample changers, test-tube shakers, centrifuges, and myriad other sound-making furnishings. In time and with enough attentive listening behind me, I am hoping to be able to enter a lab blindfolded, any lab, and yet still know what kind of research goes on there, by hearing the sound of the science unfolding in that space.

C&ENTRAL Science would love to listen to the signature sounds of your lab or to read how you describe them. Send your recordings to webmaster.cen@acs.org or post a description of your lab’s sonic character in the comments.

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