Dear Matthew Alice: My mother showed me a trick to do with a big shell she has, and I want to know how it works. When I put the shell on my ear, I can hear the ocean that it came from. How does that work? — Rosemarie R., San Diego
Well, Rosemarie, you’re not the only one who doesn’t know where the sound comes from. Just because you asked, I figured I’d check with some random people who were hanging around the house, but not any of my relatives because we all know they don’t know anything at all. I checked with ten people and nobody guessed right, so don’t feel bad. Two of them actually believed it was the sound of the ocean, but they couldn’t explain how that could possibly work if you’re listening to the shell in your living room. Four of them said that what you are hearing is the sound of your own breathing or your heartbeat. But that’s no good either, because there’s no rhythm to the “shell sound.” And four of them just told me to go away; they had no idea how it worked and thought it was weird that I wanted to know.
The real answer, from the guys who know science stuff, is that what you’re hearing is the noises around you — what’s called “white noise” — a sound that is all kinds of noises mixed together that we don’t pay much attention to. It’s made up of traffic and maybe the neighbors’ TV and people walking by who are talking and the wind and somebody’s dog barking far away. These are all the noises that we’ve learned to tune out. But the sounds get mixed together into a background noise of high notes and middle notes and low notes. Depending on the kind of shell you use, it will, say, pick up some of the low notes and ignore some of the high notes and create a new mix from the original white noise. We think it might be the ocean because we’re listening through a shell, a shell reminds us of the ocean, and the sound of waves is basically white noise — many high and middle and low notes in no particular pattern, all mixed together.
Matt: Here’s a strange one for you. If you answer it, I’ll wash your car every week for a month. So, who decided on those four little notes you get when you boot up your XP or Vista or whatever you have? Somebody must have made the decision on what sound was right. It sounds crazy, but those four notes didn’t just appear from out of nowhere. Go get ’em, elves. — Betcha Can’t Get It, via email
And get ’em they did. Yes, somebody did have to make a decision about that four-note progression everybody gets so tired of hearing that it makes ’em want to go out and buy a Mac. The tune even has a name. It’s called the Microsoft Sound. And it was one of 85 bitty ditties composed for Microsoft that had to be uplifting, futuristic, soothing, sexy, etc., and be only 3¼ seconds long. They gave the job to about the only composer around today who’d take an assignment like that seriously: Brian Eno. Check the piece of a 1996 interview with Eno about the Microsoft Sound in his bio on Wikipedia. I’m pulling my car around front right now, Betcha.
Matt: If humans breathe out CO₂, then aren’t we contributing to climate change by adding our carbon dioxide to the atmosphere? How much do we harm the atmosphere with our breathing? — Anonymous, via email
You haven’t gone so green that you’re considering stopping, have you? Geez. Anyway, we do less harm than farting cows. That’s for one thing. And for another thing, there have been manimals around for thou-u-u-u-u-u-u-usands of years, breathing in and breathing out, day after day, year after year, but it’s never come to critical mass until now. So, something’s up with your calculations. Let’s try this: They’ve done some of their own calculating in England and have figured that worldwide we breathe out about 2.5 billion tons of CO₂ each year. Maybe more now that we have so many triathlons. They figure this is about 7 percent of the annual total of CO₂ spewed by burning fossil fuels worldwide. So it looks as though, if we’d stop breathing, seals and polar bears and things would be a lot better off. But, no, no. Remember, there are CO₂-loving plants out there. Our breath is part of the cycle in which we consume those plants, the carbs are converted to CO₂, we exhale it, thus replacing carbon dioxide sucked up by greenery. We’re part of a micro-niche that keeps things in relative balance. The carbon dioxide trapped in fossil fuels has been there for a kajillion years, so when it’s burned and released, it’s not part of any neat replacement system. It’s just a net contribution to our sticky atmospheric situation.