Back to Feb. 19th Event Back to Expeditions
Vertical Pitch - Now THIS is fractal tree bark!

Sound of Light

by Rob Lindstrom & Todd Iorio

We were assigned the task of "exploring the sound of light" at Mt. Wilson. Neither of us had a clue what that meant - strange, since one of us was the one who had come up with the idea. But, in the true spirit of discovery we set out without expectations or preconceptions to listen to the mountain.

We used the Sony digital cam as our audio recording device, since it was far better suited to the task than the pocket cassette recorder we had along. The cassette recorder tended to make a very nice tape of its own motor sounds, but not much else. The Sony also gave us the ability to grab quality still images to accompany the sounds.

We didn't talk much about what we were supposed to do. We didn't have a plan or a strategy or, God forbid, an agenda. We simply began walking the mountain, listening and recording.

At first we wandered a bit aimlessly and didn't hear much at all. It seemed very, well, quiet. (audio clip) We made with some small talk. But since we live in different states and had only just met the day before, we didn't have a lot of good ol' days to chat about. Frankly, it all felt a bit awkward.

To get away from other members of the expedition, we headed toward the southeast of the Mt. Wilson complex. The snow began to fall again. The clouds came up the valley and brushed the tops of the trees. The contrast changed abruptly from sharp to soft. And whadya know, we began to hear the voices of the light.

Sometimes it sounded like a soprano's pull of breath before her aria. Other times it sounded like the trees spreading rumors about one another.

fog-drenched trees

We listened to the brittle snowflakes (dandruff of the Gods) land on our nylon jackets with a distinct, but tiny click, click-click, click.

The snow spoke in dozens of dialects: the crunch and crackle of the ice on the road; the powdery exhale of the deep drifts; the tympanic growl when we stomped hard across the snow bank just outside the dome of the 100-inch telescope.

crunch crunch through the snow

We pointed the camera at the lights that seemed to be coming from the snow and listened to the white silence. We pointed it at the shiny bells of a small rivulet as it fell off the end of the asphalt drive and headed down the canyon to the San Gabriel flood plain. (audio clip)

We listened to the cliché voices of the wind and the few birds that were active in the storm. A Stellar's Jay grated the serenity of the place. He was an obvious target for our tape session. But the camera was off. So, we followed his call until we could get a clear shot with the camera. We framed him, zoomed in and held the camera steady for more than a minute-the bird never made a sound. We turned off the camera in frustration and the bird nearly laughed his tail off.

solar tower dome

We also listened to the infrastructure. We listened to the sheds and dormitories and trailers. We listened to the dome, to the tower, to the wires and the fences. We heard the hiss of propane gas sneaking through the exposed pipes. (audio clip) We heard the sound of a heating unit as it cycled on, tracked it to the east side of the new metal building that houses part of the new Charra array now under construction. We sent the microphone sniffing around all three sides of the humming unit like a dog trying to determine the identity of the last urinating visitor. (audio clip)

We listened to the sounds of our own presence. We initiated a few sounds of our own. The sound of a snowball pelting a metal shed was particularly pleasing. (audio clip)

We listened to the mountain's heart and heard it synchronize with our own. We bounced our voices off Echo Point and listened to our disembodied selves as we disappeared down the canyon.

clouds swing past the hogback crest

In the end, we had more or less given up trying to bring sounds into captivity. Instead we just stood and listened.

It was remarkable how our hearing improved in just 40 minutes. We were not only hearing light, we were hearing color and history and texture. And, without saying much at all, we also heard each other.

Postscript: Since we were at an historical observatory where Carl Sagan and other great astronomers had once worked, we felt obliged to listen for sounds from other planets - no contact. We listened for the cosmic background radiation that reportedly is the echo of the Big Bang of creation - I guess our frozen ears weren't up to the task. We thought for a moment we heard the sounds of a dying star...but it turned out to be Todd's vibrating pager.

The TIE telescope and human scale.