A blog entry by Kevin considering Marconi’s theory that sound never dies.
Guglielmo Marconi, one of the great pioneers of long distance radio transmission, had an epiphany late in his life. He became convinced that sound never dies. It just becomes too quiet for our human ears to detect. So theoretically if he could build the right listening device any sound could be recoverable. He was particularly interested in what piece of music the orchestra was playing as the titanic went down (in fact he was supposed to be on that ocean liner but circumstance made him change his plans). However, it was his dearest dream to be able to hear Jesus’s sermon on the mount.
Such a beautiful idea. Imagine being able to listen in on the very first performance of Hamlet, The Rite Of Spring or a Nirvana rehearsal? We could relive all those unrecorded personal moments like the first time someone told you they loved you. Sitting with our new Marconi machine for the first time we would listen intently as we try to dial into those three wonderful words. Turning the knob through the centuries we would hear voices and sounds from the past emerging and submerging in the white noise – a roman soldier whistling on Hadrians wall, a young boy conversing with his action man toys, a woman laughing at something said in a language you don’t recognize, hammers and anvils and hooves, the very first stringed instrument, a quill scratching, a typewriter tapping, an exorcism, the day you said your last goodbye…
Of course Marconi was wrong.1 Sound waves do not live forever. And the collection of sounds that make up that particular phrase “I love you” do not live forever out there somewhere below our threshold of hearing. We open our mouths and as the vibrations travel out and into the air around our heads, the waves spread out farther and farther in all directions. As the energy of the sound is transferred to more and more molecules of air, they vibrate less and less until the effect is lost in the constant random jostle of air molecules. The sound is gone. In other words, you can’t splash enough in the water to make a wave that will travel across an ocean.
Ultimately, I think this is for the best. How stilted we all would act if we knew everything we said could be re-examined at a later date. And like all technology I believe it would eventually end up in the wrong hands and be used by the few to exert power over the many. Then there’s the logistics of storing all that audio, not to mention copyright issues. The NSA would need to commandeer a small country for the server farms required.
And yet even if the sound energy of the sermon on the mount is not still out there in the ether waiting to be downloaded and used as a ringtone, I think it is obvious that the original spiritual energy of it is. That first “I love you” lives long after the sound waves have died. It lasts at least one lifetime. I’d like to think two.
I’m not sure where this story about Marconi originated. I’ve heard it a few times but I can’t find it’s true source. I don’t believe he actually thought that sound waves never died. He was far too smart for that. On a side note, when he himself died, as a tribute, all radio stations throughout the world observed two minutes of silence the following day. ↩