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Sounds of Seismology

SeismoDomeLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientist Ben Holtzman grew up discovering science through interactive exhibits in San Francisco’s Exploratorium and now provides a similar experience for others. Holtzman designs immersive shows that allow people to experience what earthquakes and seismic waves look and sound like as they move through and around the Earth. On Monday, November 17th at the American Museum of Natural History Hayden Planetarium, Holtzman and his collaborators will present one of these shows, the second installment of SeismoDome: Sights and Sounds of Global Seismology.

Holtzman is a geophysicist whose research focuses on rock mechanics. He’s interested in the physical properties of rocks, mainly at high temperature, deep in the Earth, and the processes that control those properties. Holtzman is also a musician and plays in a band with Jason Candler, a sound artist and Holtzman’s SeismoDome collaborator.

The idea for SeismoDome came about in 2005 when the two were on tour together in Sardinia and began talking about earthquakes and what they what kind of sounds they would make. When Holtzman and Candler returned from touring, they approached Art Lerner-Lam, then the associate director of Lamont’s seismology division, with their idea. Their goal was to take the data from a ring of seismometers located around the planet and play that through speakers in the same geometric location as the seismometers. Doing so would enable the scientists to get a sense for wave propagation and what our planet sounds like when an earthquake happens. Lerner-Lam was excited about the idea and asked Holtzman and Candler to demonstrate it. So they created some sounds using earthquake data and took them to a studio where Candler was working to have a first listen. “The sounds were fascinating and really surprising in some ways,” said Holtzman. “They just pulled you in and made you say, ‘what was that?’ ”

The idea of sonifying earthquakes and seismic waves has been explored by other scientists; a well-known seismologist, Hugo Benioff of CalTech, even released a record in 1957 called Out of this World, featuring data from a seismograph recorded onto analog tape. What’s different about Holtzman and Candler’s work is that it’s the first to couple these sounds with animations. With help from collaborators ranging from seismologists to computer musicians to astrophysicists, the two have produced an audio and visual narrative of five of the world’s recent large earthquakes. The audience experiences these from the perspective of being out in space and then deep inside the planet.

Ben Holtzman
Ben Holtzman presents a scaled-down version of SeismoDome at Lamont-Doherty’s 2014 Open House.

“One of the most fundamental ideas that most people don’t know and everybody understands when they leave the show is that an earthquake, if it’s big enough, sends waves throughout the entire planet. That’s just a very simple idea to grasp when you see it and hear it,” says Holtzman.

In addition to providing an awe-inspiring experience, Holtzman hopes that people will leave the show realizing that earthquakes are a constant natural process, like weather, and there’s nothing inherently bad about them. “We always say in these exhibits that people have very negative associations with earthquakes because most of the time when you hear about an earthquake it’s because it’s killed people,” said Holtzman. “What’s bad is how they happen to interact with us—and that’s entirely our fault.”

Holtzman believes that if people can transform the way they think about our planet, especially in regard to earthquakes, on a societal level, we’ll begin to think differently about where we want to build our cities and where we want to live.

A few tickets remain for tonight’s free performance of SeismoDome and can be reserved by calling the AMNH at 212-769-5200. Holtzman hopes to offer similar shows there and at other locations in the future; visit Seismic Sound Lab to learn more.

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