Raga Bhairavi for a dinosaur

Under the blade: ‘The Last Days of Tenochtitlan—Conquest of Mexico by Cortés’, a painting by William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1965). When Cortés asked the Aztec chiefs where they obtained their knives they simply pointed to the sky, alluding to the popular use of meteorites in Mesoamerican tools.

Under the blade: ‘The Last Days of Tenochtitlan—Conquest of Mexico by Cortés’, a painting by William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1965). When Cortés asked the Aztec chiefs where they obtained their knives they simply pointed to the sky, alluding to the popular use of meteorites in Mesoamerican tools.   -  Wikimedia Commons

Rohit Gupta

Rohit Gupta   -  BusinessLine

Climate change as a musical symphony for the Earth’s oceans

In the early 1500s, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés “enquired of the Aztec chiefs whence they obtained their knives they simply pointed to the sky”. So concludes Mircea Eliade in The Forge And The Crucible (1956), alluding to the popular use of meteorites in Mesoamerican tools; metals were discovered much later in the ground. In the prenatal dawn of humanity, they were first harvested from the sky.

One of the first metallic tools to appear in neolithic cultures — the hammer — was also central because it would be used to design and shape other types of tools: knives, axes, bowls, spears and ornaments. The hammer may have been to the Iron Age what the personal computer is to the age of information. Between the hammer and computer, the role of the human hand as primary operator was transformed; in which the grip of the fist has been gradually pried open to utilise the delicate percussion of human fingers on a keyboard.

If the hand were to symbolise the anatomical limbs at a smaller scale, the thumb would be its spiritual head.

Some new-age mystics have stretched this fractal analogy farther, and likened the five fingers to the senses (the thumb, thus, being the mind). Like a zooming staircase of frac-turtles all the way down — the thumb of the paw of the turtle is also a paw and thus a turtle again, but is it the same turtle?

Tasked by Napoleon to create a system that would enable soldiers to communicate in the quiet of the night, Charles Barbier invented “night writing” in 1808, the embossed precursor of Braille — which would convert the human hand into eyes for the blind. It was shown as early as the 1700s that bats use their own reflected sounds to navigate through the world in the dark (by Spallanzani and Jurine) but the physical proof of ‘echolocation’ had to wait until the 1940s when ultrasonic sounds could finally be detected and generated via electronic means.

The confusion of colour with sound, number with image — or one sense with another — is a rare condition called synaesthesia in humans. But transducers of one energetic signal into another are present throughout nature. In a profound way, nature’s omniscience may be linked to the commingling and alchemy of its energy pathways.

The compass is a transducer which converts the geomagnetic fields of the earth into a mechanical rotation of the needle. The electric motor is a bidirectional transducer that converts electricity into mechanical energy, and its symmetric opposite is a dynamo. The surface terrain of a vinyl disc is converted into music by gramophones. The electric charge on a quartz crystal inside a clock is converted into mechanical oscillation due to its piezoelectric quality — a lesser-known but pivotal discovery by the brothers Pierre and Jacques Curie in 1880.

The dolphin’s song is an ultrasound searchlight that brings the oceans alive like a three-dimensional visual hologram. The first human who uncoiled this secret wasn’t looking for dolphins or sonatas: “In 1826, Jean-Daniel Colladon, a Swiss physicist, and Charles Sturm, a French mathematician, made the first widely-known measurement of the speed of sound in water in Lake Geneva” (from Oceanus magazine, 1977). After they found it was four times faster than in the air, Colladon’s experiment became the harbinger of marine acoustics, a completely new instrument to study the oceans with. It wasn’t quite possible to gaze into the abyss, but now one could hear it whisper. The acoustic echo became for the oceans what the telescope had been to the night sky.

Could they now gauge an ocean’s depth from its echo? Could ships and submarines communicate faster underwater? It was the undersea echo which established Antarctica’s status as a continent rather than an ice cap; and it was the lack of an echoing instrument that sunk the Titanic because it could not see a colossal, ancient iceberg in front of it.

The speed of sound is also affected by the water’s temperature and chemical composition. A 2012 report by the Acoustical Society Of America suggests that “global warming may give Earth’s oceans the same hi-fi sound qualities they had more than 100 million years ago, during the age of the dinosaurs.” More specifically, “by the year 2100, global warming will acidify saltwater sufficiently to make low-frequency sound near the ocean surface travel significantly farther than it currently does — perhaps twice as far.”

In that sense climate change is nothing more than a musical performance, where human activity is playing a concerto in marine acoustics, causing the collapse and rise of new biological species in rapid succession like arpeggios. The Cretaceous or Jurassic period is just one octave in a rising crescendo to the beginning of time, when heavy metal used to rain from the sky upon the virgin earth.

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on January 13, 2017

Related

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor