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Turn Down That Racket

Sean L’Estrange

Discord: The Story of Noise, by Mike Goldsmith, Oxford University Press, 317 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0199687794

This is an engaging book on a topic that concerns us all yet about which we remain strangely inarticulate ‑ noise. A constant companion of all human activity, the third major component of the human auditory stream (along with speech and music), and an ever increasing presence in modern societies, noise is poorly understood outside of a small segmented community of specialists made up of acousticians, engineers, medics, physicists, physiologists, and planners. Technical documents, esoteric research papers, eccentric tracts and obscure legal codes abound. Yet there has been very little by way of an accessible and well-rounded introduction to noise as a natural phenomenon, human creation, and an increasingly important feature of contemporary social life. Mike Goldsmith, a freelance science writer with long experience of work in an acoustics research laboratory, aims to rectify that situation with this book. Drawing upon a raft of disparate writings and research, he presents us with a broad-brush history of noise, from the (silent) “Big Bang” and the general quiet of pre-historic times to contemporary problems of noise pollution. It is an enjoyable read, full of information and insight, and laced with no small measure of humour and wit.

The book is an example of what the best of contemporary popular science has to offer. Free of the condescension that accompanies presenting oneself as a spokesperson for official science in order to mediate between hyper-technical professional science and a semi-literate public, Goldsmith is more interested in making a sustained argument for taking noise seriously. Though the book is centrally concerned with developments in the science, technology and politics of noise, these are related to social and cultural contexts, and not least to prevailing attitudes towards noise and those who wished there was less of it around. The latter, Goldsmith shows, have often been portrayed as “weak” or “cranky”, thus facilitating the marginalisation of noise as an issue for public discourse and as a topic for scholarly and scientific enquiry. It is this dismissive tendency that Goldsmith hopes to challenge with this book. Noise is, after all, a major feature of contemporary societies and is no longer confined to irregular and episodic occurrences of discrete noises disturbing an otherwise quiet setting. Rather, it has become constitutive of the aural landscape of most humans (and many animals too). Ubiquitous, systematic and inescapable, denying or diminishing its importance is no longer an option.

Goldsmith pursues this argument through the construction of a broad narrative of developments in the generation of noise, studies of the nature of sound, and attempts to regulate it. The text is divided into seventeen chapters, covering some 300 pages, with an involved and impassioned introduction defending the project from sceptical or uncomprehending voices doubting its value or interest. (One suspects that Goldsmith himself has met with more than one person who considers his concern with the issue to be somewhat cranky.) The opening chapter sketches the basics of the physics of sound and outlines the anatomy and physiology of the human ear in order to establish a baseline of natural scientific concepts for use in subsequent chapters. The following seven chapters cover the development of noise in natural history and prehistory (Chapter 2), Ancient Greece and Rome (Chapter 3), sixteenth century London (Chapter 4), the emergence of recognisably modern science in the seventeenth century (Chapter 5), the growth of noise-making technologies in the eighteenth century (Chapter 6), and two closely-linked chapters on the nineteenth century: one focused on the emergence and spread of mechanical noise accompanying the first wave of industrialisation (Chapter 7), the other on the first organised ‘anti-noise’ campaigns that arose in response to this new social cacophony (Chapter 8).

Though not expressly indicated as such, together these chapters constitute a distinct section of the book, delineating its major themes, concerns and questions. Full of colour and curiosities, they catalogue a series of innovations in noise-making, the first fumblings in the dark for a theory of sound, and isolated incidents of noise regulation. Thus we are told of the putative use by Ancient Greeks of bronze shields to act as “resonators” to detect underground tunnels, are introduced to the wonderfully-named Tuba-Stentoro-Phonica, a 6.4 metre-long prototype of the megaphone, and encounter Jonathan Swift wishing a large cabbage was stuck in the throat of a cabbage-seller hawking his wares outside his window. We come across James Watt perversely instructing his engineers to ensure his steam engines made a “horrible noise”, having learnt that it was the sheer noisiness of the engines that won people over to the new contraption, and we are presented with the (failed) prototypical “microphone”, designed not to allow electrical amplification of voices but to render the inaudible audible on the model of the microscope. There is the absurdist comedy of Christian Doppler’s train of trumpeters travelling through the Belgian countryside to investigate the effects of moving sound on perceived pitch (today’s “Doppler effect”) and one of the earliest concerted campaigns against noise in the form of a peculiar “war” on (largely foreign) street musicians in London. From drums and trumpets to railroads; from Pythagoras’s investigation of musical dissonance to Wallace Sabine’s studies of reverberation in enclosed spaces; and from the Sybarites confining metal-working to outside the city walls to the growth of municipal regulations against nighttime noises in most European cities by the end of the nineteenth century ‑ these chapters piece together the major events, developments, and debates that laid the foundation for the more complicated and intensive scientific, technological and social developments of the twentieth century.

Goldsmith dubs the twentieth century “the noise century”, and with good reason. The almost overnight success of the internal combustion engine in the decade before the First World War gave rise to a revolution in transportation (on land, in the air, by sea) that irrevocably transformed the soundscapes of today’s societies. The invention of the triode (in 1906) as the first electronic amplifying device made radio, recorded music, public address systems and outdoor music concerts possible. International conventions for measuring noise, the instrumentation necessary for monitoring and recording noise levels, and protocols and parameters for conducting research on sound and noise ‑ in short the “science of noise” ‑ are all achievements of the twentieth century. So too are campaigns and movements for the reduction and suppression of noise that go beyond the narrow self-interest of select groups or the intense localism of NIMBY campaigners. And last, but not least, the twentieth century also saw the belated recognition on the part of medical authorities that noise may actually affect one’s health and well-being over and above its potential for impairing hearing. Consequently, it is this broad constellation of crucial developments that Goldsmith maps out over the course of eight more chapters that make up the second half of his book.

Like the preceding chapters, these too are organised chronologically, with one or more developments in science, technology or politics given pride of place in each chapter/period. Thus we have chapters on the fin de siècle period before the First World War in which the internal combustion engine and new transport noises (engines, horns) came to dominance (Chapter 9), and a brief chapter on submarine warfare and research on underwater acoustics during the war itself, giving rise to the first generation of ultrasonic echo-location technologies (today’s “sonar”) for military purposes (Chapter 10). This is followed by a more substantial chapter on the emerging scientific consensus on the nature of noise during the inter-war period, in which the (A-weighted) decibel (dBA) emerged victorious as the principal unit for measuring noise levels (Chapter 11), before another brief chapter on underwater acoustics during the Second World War (Chapter 12). A short chapter on the postwar interest in the effects of ultrasound and infrasound on people during the 1950s (Chapter 13) then precedes a quite substantial chapter on the new-found confidence of sound scientists and engineers during the 1960s ‑ fittingly rounded off with a detailed account of the rise and fall of Concorde, where the dream of supersonic travel met its nemesis in the political objections to the terrifying sonic booms created by aircraft travelling faster than the sound waves they generated (Chapter 14). A concise chapter on the 1970s and the absorption of noise within new environmental discourse as a “pollutant” (Chapter 15) is then followed by a lengthy chapter surveying the current state of knowledge about noise, in which the European Union is credited with sponsoring and pioneering new research techniques, tools and regulations such as noise surveys and noise maps (Chapter 16). The book concludes with reflections on the prospects for a less noisy future, noting the obstacles that stand in the way of securing a quieter tomorrow ‑ not least the difficulties in getting more people to care (Chapter 17).

All told, the book is a veritable tour de force ‑ an entertaining and highly informative tour through the weird and wonderful (and often wacky and worrisome) world of noise. Though there are a good number of concerns and criticisms one might raise at certain points, or indeed, about the book as a whole ‑ there is something of a “scrapbook” feel to much of it as sections and chapters jump from one topic to another ‑ they are arguably concerns to be aimed at a different book, or at least one conceived on a different plan. Goldsmith described his aim as wanting to “tell a story” about noise, and clearly hopes his wide-ranging tale of noise, noises, noise-makers, noise scientists, noise protesters and noise regulators will raise the profile of noise as something to take an interest in and to begin to understand better and care more about. It certainly achieved that goal for this reader, and no doubt it will for others too, as the book imbues the oft-heard refrain “Turn down the volume!” with a whole new meaning.