Sound is all around us. Its meanings and contradictions shape our emotional responses. We have a hamburger franchise named after sound (Sonic) and we can supersize sound (Supersonic). Professor Seth S. Horowitz (aka Dr. Evil - a nickname he earned when he mounted a laser pack on the back of a brown bat) tries to explain the mysteries of sound in his neat first book, The Universal Sense. He begins with questions about the mysteries of sound, like "What is it about fingernails on chalkboard that makes us cringe?" Everyone who reads this book will likely add their own gnawing sound mystery. Mine is this: why is the sound coming from my iPad stronger when the device is fully cloaked in its iHome leather (more likely faux leather) bound casing, than when the device is taken out of its encasement and free to blare to the rooftops? A sound mystery.
Sound is technical as well as emotional, and we live in a world fascinated by big sexy words having to do with sound. The author uses one of these terms early, "amplitude modulation", our daily media is chock full of others, some of which have surfaced with the release of the new iPhone 5. Newspapers were running stories about "Circuit Switchback" the process by which consumers using 4G LTE networks will be switched back to 3G when they use applications involving voice and data, because 4G LTE can't yet handle simultaneous voice and data transmissions, but 3G can.
But if Professor Horowitz's book was just about fancy sound terms, it would probably be dull and listless: This is your brain listening to Metallica; this is your brain listening to the sea. Instead the author begins the other way - with sound itself. He brings a sound to our ears and describes how we are changed by it.
In spite of the complexities of audio terminology, the book is full of simple truths: there are many blind animals, but none that can't hear. Sound is relative - to a bat, the 80 decibel sound of a florescent light bulb is maddening; true silence doesn't exist because wherever there is vibration, there is sound.
For all its factual content, this is a work of the imagination - it takes imagination to describe how the Earth might have sounded during its development phase; how the first planetary rains might have sounded, or how the first cilia may have sounded - anchored and waving on algae as they were. The author creates an improbable galaxy of undersea creatures sounding off - choruses of snapping shrimp, the violin sounds of lobsters, and most endearingly, farting herring. His work on the behavior of bullfrogs and bats will make you rethink everything you've learned about them.
Music, quite naturally, occupies a key space in the book as do speculations on probable outcomes for ongoing acoustic research. One book can't by itself cover everything in such a vast subject as sound, but it would have been interesting to hear what innovations and discoveries in sound companies like Cirrus Logic are making. All in all, it sounds like fascinating reading and it is.