MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Testing the Sound of Silence

The anechoic test chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis holds a Guinness Book record as “the quietest place in the world.” Used to test the amount of sound generated by an amazing variety of products (Whirlpool, Harley-Davidson, etc.) and to determine sound quality, the chamber has generated a meme about the psychological limits to enduring an unnaturally quiet environment. It has a reputation for being “so quiet it becomes unbearable after a short time.”

Justin Glawe over at The Airship casts doubt on all the publicity. Is it really a matter of gullible journalists repeating the brand hype?

It’s much less impressive in person than in the photographs you can find online. What you can’t see in image searches is the dust coating the fiberglass fins that cover the walls and sit below the chicken-wire floor.

…[David] Berg, lab manager for the last 22 years, said the claim that no one could last in the anechoic chamber for more than 45 minutes is a result of shoddy journalism.

According to George Michelson Foy, author of Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, the legendary 45-minute limit wasn’t a problem when he tried it, despite the chamber’s ability to absorb 99.9% of sound:

In an attempt to recapture some peace, I decided to go on a mission to find the quietest place on Earth; to discover whether absolute silence exists…

When the heavy door shut behind me, I was plunged into darkness (lights can make a noise). For the first few seconds, being in such a quiet place felt like nirvana, a balm for my jangled nerves. I strained to hear something and heard…nothing.

Then, after a minute or two, I became aware of the sound of my breathing, so I held my breath. The dull thump of my heartbeat became apparent – nothing I could do about that. As the minutes ticked by, I started to hear the blood rushing in my veins. Your ears become more sensitive as a place gets quieter, and mine were going overtime. I frowned and heard my scalp moving over my skull, which was eerie, and a strange, metallic scraping noise I couldn’t explain. Was I hallucinating? The feeling of peace was spoiled by a tinge of disappointment – this place wasn’t quiet at all. You’d have to be dead for absolute silence.

Then I stopped obsessing about what bodily functions I could hear and began to enjoy it. I didn’t feel afraid and came out only because my time was up; I would happily have spent longer in there. Everyone was impressed that I’d beaten the record, but having spent so long searching for quiet, I was comfortable with the feeling of absolute stillness. Afterwards I felt wonderfully rested and calm.

Filed under: acoustics, silence

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