‘The Sound Book’ explores echoes, bad acoustics and more

Trevor Cox explores the science of the sonic wonders of the world

The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World
Trevor Cox
Norton & Co., $26.95

Most lists of the world’s wonders include visually stunning attractions — the Grand Canyon or the pyramids of Giza, for example. Yet there’s more to life than meets the eye, as acoustic engineer Trevor Cox reveals in this international tour of aural amazements.

Many of the marvels Cox describes are architectural, from domes and “whispering galleries” that reflect and focus even the tiniest murmurs to the most reverberant place in the world: a four-story-deep subterranean tank in Scotland that was built to hold strategic oil reserves during World War II. The echoes inside the tank are so strong and last so long because oil has soaked into the concrete walls, filling any pores where sound waves could infiltrate and be absorbed rather than reflected.

The author also visits natural wonders such as the singing sands of California’s Kelso Dunes and the Stalacpipe Organ of Virginia’s Luray Caverns, where cave formations are tapped like a huge xylophone to make musical tones. In various field experiments, Cox attempts to dispel the old wives’ tale that “a duck’s quack doesn’t echo.” (He’s ultimately unsuccessful, but that’s because of the sites he’s chosen and not due to any supernatural characteristics of the waterfowl’s vocal cords, he suggests.)

Throughout this charming book, Cox calls upon physics and the neuroscience of hearing to explain everything from how engineers successfully tweak the acoustics in concert halls to why it’s so hard to hear in noisy restaurants.

From its first page to its last, The Sound Book invites readers to close their eyes and open their ears to the sounds, both normal and peculiar, that surround us all.

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