This Week in Sound: Are Electric Cars Killing AM Radio?

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the December 13, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: thisweekinsound.substack.com.

BUG OUT: Scientists are recreating the sounds of ancient insects. It’s like Jurassic Park, but smaller, and less of a DEFCON threat. It’s also considerably older.

Scientists had already suspected that katydids might have changed their tunes before mammals evolved better hearing about 160 million years ago. But they had no evidence for that hypothesis until [Michael Engel [at the University of Kansas] and his colleague Bo Wang at Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China discovered a collection of 63 very well-preserved male and female katydid fossils, representing 18 species from the Middle Jurassic Epoch, 160 million years ago, in north-eastern China.

The team photographed the three-dimensional fossils to investigate the males’ stridulatory organs – a set of five structures on the forewings that produce and radiate sound – and both sexes’ hearing organs, which resemble a somewhat simplified form of the human middle and inner ear structures and are located on the two front legs. In both modern and ancient species, all katydids have ears, but only males have stridulatory organs.

SONIC REDLINING: Students of Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University, have looked at how different neighborhoods around Providence, Rhode Island, were affected differently by noise pollution: “In the areas around highways and in neighborhoods with more non-white and low-income residents, students in Walker’s class found noise pollution levels were higher — sometimes above the maximum decibel levels set by city ordinances.” As part of the research, they produced heat maps displaying the relative impact.

Island Noise: Relative volume levels of Providence neighborhoods

RED EAR: The Mars rover was hit by a nearly 400-foot-tall dust storm and lived to share what its onboard microphones recorded: “The sound of the dust devil, published Tuesday to accompany a paper in the journal Nature Communications, is subtle. It’s crackly and percussive, like radio static, though one might more generously imagine a breeze ruffling some distant palm fronds.”

“[ISAE-SUPAERO planetary scientist Naomi] Murdoch said the team’s success in capturing a dust devil’s sound reflects both luck and preparation. The rover’s microphone takes recordings lasting a little under three minutes, and it does that only eight times a month. But the recordings are timed for when dust devils are most likely to occur, and the rover cameras are pointed in the direction where they are most likely to be seen.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode, for the Washington Post gift link!)

RADIO INTERFERENCE: One victim of electric vehicles appears to be AM radio, which (see nytimes.com gift link) is being dropped by numerous manufacturers, including Audi, Ford, Porsche, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo:

An increasing number of electric models have dropped AM radio in what broadcasters call a worrisome shift that could spell trouble for the stations and deprive drivers of a crucial source of news in emergencies.

Carmakers say that electric vehicles generate more electromagnetic interference than gas-powered cars, which can disrupt the reception of AM signals and cause static, noise and a high-frequency hum. (FM signals are more resistant to such interference.)

Despite this industry-wide shift, the eradication of AM isn’t necessarily inevitable: “Some experts say the reception problems are not insurmountable.”

TAPE HEADS: A perspective on physical recording media, via New Scientist: “[A]udio on cassette doesn’t sound as good as hi-res streaming, so what is the appeal? Well, it is the same reason vinyl has made a comeback – the enduring lure of retro technology. Earlier this year, a series of experiments carried out by a team including psychologist Matthew Fisher at Yale University showed that people tend to prefer technology they think was invented before they were born, an effect that holds even when the technology isn’t as old as people think.”

QUICK NOTES: WHALE OF A MYSTERY: Whales are making their songs deeper. Scientists have found “the tonal frequencies of the songs had been sinking to even greater depths for three straight years.” And no one knows why. (Thanks, Erik Davis!)SKULL CANDY: WBUR covered how Berklee College of Music professor “Richard Boulanger turns … brainwaves into music in a high-pitch, high-tech demonstration.” ▰ BAD LANGUAGE: “[Research] suggest[s] that some sounds — plosives and affricates in particular — are more suitable for profanity than others. This may be because they sound more abrasive or aggressive than other sounds, and so make language harsher when used.” (Thanks, Christian Carrière!)PIER PRESSURE: Noise pollution of Hong Kong is keeping dolphins from being able to communicate with each other. ▰ BAND AID: Apple’s watchOS 9.2 has expanded its environmental noise detection offering. ▰ F(L)IGHT CLUB: It’s not just people who get road rage: “A recently published study has found that human-made traffic noises are linked to increased physical aggression in rural European robins.” ▰ NORTH STAR: Anchorage, Alaska, has tripled the fee for noisy vehicles, to $300 from $100. ▰ DIAMOND AGE: “The earliest transistor gadget to hit the market was a hearing aid released in 1953. Soon after came the transistor radio, which became emblematic of the 1960s.” And now the transistor has turned 75. ▰ CAM NOT: The organizer of the Citizens Noise Advisory Group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is not convinced that so-called “sonic cameras” are the answer to the problem of vehicular noise pollution, noting vandalism, theft, and location avoidance as issues to be considered. ▰ RUMP ROAST: John Hodgman weighed in on whether the word “fart” counts as onomatopoeia — and whoever wrote the headline deserves a Pulitzer.

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