Discovered by the same people who brought you the modern computer.
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Spend any time performing classical music and you are told that appearance matters. A choir can enter a hall and, through their demeanor alone, receive applause. A band strolling on to a darkened stage gets cheers. We live with YouTube music videos as much as we live with invisible MP3s, and what we see prepares us, excites us, primes us, for what we’re about to hear.
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This recording appears to be a beluga whale named NOC trying to imitate human speech. NOC was captured in 1977 and became a part of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. After seven years, NOC started to make noises that humans in the water mistook for human speech. Shortly thereafter, NOC was identified as the source of the sounds and the researchers began to run experiments to figure out how he was doing it. Four years later, NOC stopped “talking,” and almost 25 years later, Sam Ridgeway and colleagues published a paper on his vocalizations in the journal Current Biology.
As you can hear yourself, the white whale was not very good at talking. Then again, the whales, like dolphins, don’t have a larynx. That meant that the whale had to come up with a way to use his existing mechanism to imitate the rhythms of human speech. In fact, the researchers found that these vocalizations were not much like his normal whaletalk. For starters, they were several octaves lower, and they displayed a cadence that matches human speech.
[Image: Spatial Agency]
Red Bull’s Stratos mission set multiple records on October 14, 2012, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner rode a balloon up to 128,100 feet and jumped. He set records for highest manned balloon flight and fastest free fall, and became the first human to break the sound barrier outside a vehicle. He also set a YouTube record for most-watched live stream; more than 8 million people tuned in. Here, the instantly iconic event is reenacted with LEGO figures in a short video promoting Vienna’s Model Maker Fair. With a tiny balloon and a GoPro camera, the recreation is spot-on.
A lifetime of Disney movies has trained me to have certain expectations about animal sounds, most especially with regard to the King of the Jungle, the lion. The best lion has the best roar. Them’s just the rules.
But now, courtesy of Ed Yong’s eagle eye, we have scientific evidence that a lion’s roar says very little about an animal’s role in the jungle’s hierarchy. A team analyzed the roars of 24 lions collected over decades in an effort to discern whether there were meaningful correlations between the features of the roar and the animal’s sexual fitness.
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The Swedish lyric tenor Jussi Björling died in 1960 at the age of 49. If you read much about Björling, you’ll frequently encounter a certain theme: that none of his recordings capture the beauty of his voice. Those who heard him sing rhapsodize over that voice, and sigh that its glories can’t be passed along to later generations. When their memories go, so too will Björling’s true greatness. Recording technologies won’t help, we’re told. But maybe they do help, just in a peculiar way.
We often find ourselves fascinated by the not-quite-captured, by what barely eludes us. Consider the centuries-old tradition of the male sopranos, the castrati, who provided remarkable vocal power and technique to many generations of composers. The castrato sound survived into the twentieth century in the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, who in 1902 — at age 44, well past his best singing years — made some recordings in the Sistine Chapel. They are, it must be said, terrible: his voice is weak, thin, and characterless and he often goes off-key. Some argue that modern ears are alienated by the florid and hyper-dramatic style Moreschi favored, but this is special pleading: it’s when he sings most plainly that his shortcomings are most evident.
But Moreschi’s failure to manifest the thrilling power that the castrati were celebrated for just makes the tradition that much more stimulating to the imagination. It’s somehow exciting to think of him as an insubstantial shadow of something that was once great. Keats wrote, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” which is of course true; however, there’s something specially compelling about the melody heard but not quite grasped, not experienced to the full.
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