The Fairy-Land Of Science Lecture 6 – Part 2

Lecture VI  The Voices Of Nature And How We Hear Them  Continued…

And now I hope that some one is anxious to ask why, when I clap my hands, anyone behind me or at the side, can hear it as well or nearly as well as you who are in front. This is because I give a shock to the air all round my hands, and waves go out on all sides, making as it were gloves of crowdings and partings widening and widening away from the clap as circles widen on a pond. Thus the waves travel behind me, above me, and on all sides, until they hit the walls, the ceiling, and the floor of the room, and wherever you happen to be, they hit upon your ear.

If you can picture to yourself these waves spreading out in all directions, you will easily see why sound grows fainter at the distance. Just close round my hands when I clap them, there is a small quantity of air, and so the shock I give it is very violent, but as the sound-waves spread on all sides they have more and more air to move, and so the air-atoms are shaken less violently and strike with less force on your ear.

If we can prevent the sound-wave from spreading, then the sound is not weakened. The Frenchman Biot found that a low whisper could be heard distinctly for a distance of half a mile through a tube, because the waves could not spread beyond the small column of air. But unless you speak into a small space of some kind, you cannot prevent the waves going out from you in all directions.

Try and imagine that you see these waves spreading all round me now and hitting on your ears as they pass, then on the ears of those behind you, and on and on in widening globes till they reach the wall. What will happen when they get there? If the wall were thin, as a wooden partition is, they would shake it, and it again would shake the air on the other side, and so anyone in the next room would have the sound of my voice brought to their ear.

But something more will happen. In any case the sound-waves hitting against the wall will bound back from it just as a ball bounds back when thrown against anything, and so another set of sound-waves reflected from the wall will come back across the room. If these waves come to your ear so quickly that they mix with direct waves, they help to make the sound louder in this room than you would in the open air, for the “Ha” from my mouth and a second “Ha” from the wall come to your ear so instantaneously that they make one sound. This is why you can often hear better at the far end of a church when you stand against a screen or a wall, then when you are half-way up the building nearer to the speaker, because near the wall the reflected waves strike strongly on your ear and make the sound louder.

Sometimes, when the sound comes from a great explosion, these reflected waves are so strong that they are able to break glass. In the explosion of gunpowder in St. John’s Wood, many houses in the back streets had their windows broken; for the sound-waves bounded off at angles from the walls and struck back upon them.

Now suppose the wall were so far behind you that the reflected sound-waves only hit upon your ear after those coming straight from me had died away; then you would hear the sound twice, “Ha” from me and “Ha” from the wall, and here you have an echo, “Ha, ha.” In order for this to happen in ordinary air, you must be standing at least 56 feet away from the point from which the waves are reflected, for then the second blow will come one-tenth of a second after the first one, and that is long enough for you to feel them separately.* Miss C. A. Martineau tells a story of a dog which was terribly frightened by an echo. Thinking another dog was barking, he ran forward to meet him, and was very much astonished, when, as he came nearer the wall, the echo ceased. I myself once knew a case of this kind, and my dog, when he could find no enemy, ran back barking, till he was a certain distance off, and then the echo of course began again. He grew so furious at last that we had great difficulty in preventing him from flying at a strange man who happened to be passing at the time. (*Sound travels 1120 feet in a second, in air of ordinary temperature, and therefore 112 feet in the tenth of a second. Therefore the journey of 56 feet beyond you to reach the wall and 56 feet to return, will occupy the sound-wave one-tenth of a second and separate the two sounds.)

Sometimes, in the mountains, walls of rock rise at some distance one behind another, and then each one will send back its echo a little later than the rock before it, so that the “Ha” which you give will come back as a peal of laughter. There is an echo in Woodstock Park which repeats the word twenty times. Again sometimes, as in the Alps, the sound-waves coming back rebound from mountain to mountain and are driven backwards and forwards, becoming fainter and fainter till they die away; these echoes are very beautiful.

If you are now able to picture to yourselves one set of waves going to the wall, and another set returning and crossing them, you will be ready to understand something of that very difficult question, How is it that we can hear many different sounds at one time and tell them apart?

Have you ever watched the sea when its surface is much ruffled, and noticed how, besides the big waves of the tide, there are numberless smaller ripples made by the wind blowing the surface of the water, or the oars of a boat dipping in it, or even rain- drops falling? If you have done this you will have seen that all these waves and ripples cross each other, and you can follow any one ripple with you eye as it goes on its way undisturbed by the rest. Or you may make beautiful crossing and recrossing ripples on a pond by throwing in two stones at a little distance from each other, and here too you can follow any one wave on to the edge of the pond.

Now just in this way the waves of sound, in their manner of moving, cross and recross each other. You will remember too, that different sounds make waves of different lengths, just as the tide makes a long wave and the rain-drops tiny ones. Therefore each sound falls with its own peculiar wave upon your ear, and you can listen to that particular wave just as you look at one particular ripple, and then the sound becomes clear to you.

All this is what is going on outside your ear, but what is happening in your ear itself? How do these blows of the air speak to your brain? By means of the following diagram, we will try to understand roughly our beautiful hearing instrument, the ear.

p2 the ear

First, I want you to notice how beautifully the outside shell, or concha as it is called, is curbed round so that any movement of the air coming to it from the front is caught in it and reflected into the hole of the ear. Put your finger round your ear and feel how the gristly part is curved towards the front of your head. This concha makes a curve much like the curve a deaf man makes with his hand behind his ear to catch the sound. Animals often have to raise their ears to catch the sound well, but ours stand always ready. When the air-waves have passed in at the hole of your ear, they move all the air in the passage, which is called the auditory, or hearing, canal. This canal is lined with little hairs to keep out insects and dust, and the wax which collects in it serves the same purpose. But is too much wax collects, it prevents the air from playing well upon the drum, and therefore makes you deaf. Across the end of this canal, a membrane or skin called the tympanum is stretched, like the parchment over the head of a drum, and it is this membrane which moves to and fro as the air-waves strike on it. A violent box on the ear will sometimes break this delicate membrane, or injure it, and therefore it is very wrong to hit a person violently on the ear.

On the other side of this membrane, inside the ear, there is air, which fills the whole of the inner chamber and the tube, which runs down into the throat behind the nose, and is called the Eustachian tube after the man who discovered it. This tube is closed at the end by a valve which opens and shuts. If you breathe out strongly, and then shut your mouth and swallow, you will hear a little “click” in your ear. This is because in swallowing you draw the air out of the Eustachian tube and so draw in the membrane, which clicks as it goes back again. But unless you do this the tube and the whole chamber cavity behind the membrane remains full of air.

Now, as this membrane is driven to and fro by the sound-waves, it naturally shakes the air in the cavity behind it, and it also sets moving three most curious little bones. The first of the bones is fastened to the middle of the drumhead so that it moves to and fro every time this membrane quivers. The head of this bone fits into a hole in the next bone, the anvil, and is fastened to it by muscles, so as to drag it along with it; but, the muscles being elastic, it can draw back a little from the anvil, and so give it a blow each time it comes back. This anvil is in its turn very firmly fixed to the little bone, shaped like a stirrup, which you see at the end of the chain.

This stirrup rests upon a curious body which looks in the diagram like a snail-shell with tubes coming out of it. This body, which is called the labyrinth, is made of bone, but it has two little windows in it, one covered only by a membrane, while the other has the head of the stirrup resting upon it.

Now, with a little attention you will understand that when the air in the canal shakes the drumhead to and fro, this membrane must drag with it the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup. Each time the drum goes in, the hammer will hit the anvil, and drive the stirrup against the little window; every time it goes out it will draw the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup out again, ready for another blow. Thus the stirrup is always playing upon this little window. Meanwhile, inside the bony labyrinth there is a fluid like water, and along the little passages are very fine hairs, which wave to and fro like reeds; and whenever the stirrup hits at the little window, the fluid moves these hairs to and fro, and they irritate the ends of a nerve, and this nerve carries the message to your brain. There are also some curious little stones called otoliths, lying in some parts of this fluid, and they, by their rolling to and fro, probably keep up the motion and prolong the sound.

You must not imagine we have explained here the many intricacies which occur in the ear; I can only hope to give you a rough idea of it, so that you may picture to yourselves the air-waves moving backwards and forward in the canal of your ear, then the tympanum vibrating to and fro, the hammer hitting the anvil, the stirrup knocking at the little window, the fluid waving the fine hairs and rolling the tiny stones, the ends of the nerve quivering, and then (how we know not) the brain hearing the message.

Is not this wonderful, going on as it does at every sound you hear? And yet his is not all, for inside that curled part of the labyrinth, which looks like a snail-shell and is called the cochlea, there is a most wonderful apparatus of more than three thousand fine stretched filaments or threads, and these act like the strings of a harp, and make you hear different tones. If you go near to a harp or a piano, and sing any particular note very loudly, you will hear this note sounding in the instrument, because you will set just that particular string quivering, which gives the note you sang. The air-waves set going by your voice touch that string, because it can quiver in time with them, while none of the other strings can do so. Now, just in the same way the tiny instrument of three thousand strings in your ear, which is called Corti’s organ, vibrates to the air-waves, one thread to one set of waves, and another to another, and according to the fibre that quivers, will be the sound you hear. Here then at last, we see how nature speaks to us. All the movements going on outside, however violent and varied they may be, cannot of themselves make sound. But here, in the little space behind the drum of our ear, the air-waves are sorted and sent on to our brain, where they speak to us as sound.

Go to Lecture 6-Part 3 here.