Sound Sense

What is sound? We’re told that it’s a wave traveling through a medium, but we don’t hear sounds as existing in the air; we hear them as located at the place where they’re generated. Is sound a quality of an object or of the surrounding medium?

“Listening to the birds outside your window, the students outside your door, the cars going down your street, in the vast majority of cases you will perceive those sounds as being located at the place where they originate,” writes St. Joseph’s University philosopher Robert Pasnau. “But if sounds are in the air, as the standard view holds, then the cries of birds and of students are all around you. This is not how it seems.”

Properly speaking, then, where should we say a sound is located? At its point of origin, or filling the air?

(Robert Pasnau, “What Is Sound?” Philosophical Quarterly 49:196 [July 1999], 309-324.)

Lip Service

British tongue twisters:

United States twin-screw steel cruisers.

I shot three shy thrushes. You shoot three shy thrushes.

The rain ceaseth and sufficeth us.

A wicked cricket critic.

Many an anemone sees an enemy anemone.

All I want is a proper cup of coffee,
Made in a proper copper coffee pot.
You can believe it or not —
I want a cup of coffee
In a proper coffee pot.
Tin coffee pots or
Iron coffee pots,
They’re no use to me,
If I can’t have a
Proper cup of coffee
In a proper copper coffee pot
I’ll have a cup of tea.

Ken Parkin’s 1969 Anthology of British Tongue-Twisters is arranged anatomically, so to speak, according to the part of the mouth that gets the workout. These are listed under “Two Lips”:

Bill Badger brought the bear a bit of boiled bacon in a brown bag.

Gig-whip. Gig-whip. Gig-whip.

The broom blooms when the bluebells bloom.

And “Weak writers want white ruled writing paper.”


Deposition of Elizabeth Brett, a Hertfordshire farmer’s servant, regarding an alarming experience on Sept. 15, 1784:

This deponent, on her oath, saith, that on Wednesday the 15th day of September instant, between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, she, this deponent, being then at work in her master’s brewhouse, heard an uncommon and loud noise, which, on attending to it, she conceived to be the sound of men singing as they returned from harvest-home. That upon going to the door of the house she perceived a strange large body in the air, and, on approaching it in a meadow-field near the house, called Long Mead, she perceived a man in it; that the person in the machine, which she knew not what to make of, but which the person in it called an air-balloon, called to her to take hold of the rope, which she did accordingly; that John Mills and George Philips, labourers with said Mr. Thomas Read, came up soon after, and, being likewise requested to assist in holding the rope, both made their excuses, one of them, George Philips, saying he was too short, and John Mills saying that he did not like it; that this deponent continued to hold the rope till some other harvest-men of Mr. Benjamin Robinson, of High Cross, came up, by whose assistance the machine was held down till the person got out of the machine. And this deponent further, on her oath, saith, that the person now present and shown to her by William Baker, Esq., the justice of peace before whom this deposition is taken, as Mr. Vincent Lunardi, and in her presence declares himself to be Mr. Vincent Lunardi, was the person who called to me from the machine, as above stated, and who descended therefrom in the said field called Long Meadow.

Other witnesses acknowledged that Lunardi had told them “that he had set out from the Artillery Ground in London, a little before two o’clock in the afternoon of the said day, in the machine, and had travelled through the air to the place where they found him.” He later described his view of the city from this new perspective.

From Christopher H. Turnor’s Astra Castra, 1865, via Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, 1985.

When in Rome …
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Oxford zoologists Tim Guilford and Dora Biro discovered a surprise in 2004: Homing pigeons sometimes just follow roads like the rest of us. Although the birds have inbuilt magnetic compasses, they fall back on the known landscape when they’re in familiar territory, following the lines of motorways and trunk roads.

Guilford and Biro strapped cameras and GPS devices to pigeons’ backs and watched them follow the A34 Oxford Bypass, turning at traffic lights and curving around roundabouts. They write, “One dominant linear feature, the A34 Oxford Bypass, appears to be associated with low entropy for much of its length, even where individual birds fly along or over it for a relatively short distance.”

“In fact, you don’t need a mini-GPS to find the circumstantial evidence” of this phenomenon, writes Joe Moran in On Roads. “You will often see seagulls in landlocked Birmingham because they have flown up the Bristol Channel and followed the M5, mistaking it for a river.”

(Tim Guilford et al., “Positional Entropy During Pigeon Homing Ii: Navigational Interpretation of Bayesian Latent State Models,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 227:1 [2004], 25-38.)


A puzzle from R.M. Abraham’s Diversions & Pastimes, 1933:

A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor Prison and has half-an-hour’s start of two warders and a bloodhound who race after him. The warders’ speed is 4 miles per hour; the dog’s 12 miles per hour, but the prisoner can only do 3 miles per hour. The dog runs up to the prisoner and then back to the warders, and so on back and forth until the warders catch the prisoner. How far does the dog travel altogether?

Click for Answer


Hungarian physician Alexander Lenard spent seven years translating Winnie-the-Pooh into Latin:

‘Quid ergo est, Porcelle?’ dixit Christophorus Robinus lectulo exsurgens.

‘Heff,’ dixit Porcellus anhelitum ducens ut vix loqui posset, ‘heff — heff — heffalumpus!’


‘Illic,’ exclamavit ungulam agitans Porcellus.

‘Qualum praebet speciem?’

‘Sicut — sicut — habet maximum caput quod unquam vidisti. Aliquid magnum et immane — sicut — sicut nihil. Permagnum — sane, putares — nescio — permagnum nihil. Sicut caccabus.’

When it reached the New York Times bestseller list in 1960, the Christian Science Monitor wrote, “It is hard to conceive of a Latin work more calculated than this attractive volume to fascinate the modern public, young and old.” Here it is.

In a Word

v. to make like a Presbyterian church in appearance

(This is in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s English Note-Books of 1857: “Then we went to St Giles’s Cathedral, which I shall not describe, it having been kirkified into three interior divisions by the Covenanters.”)

Coming and Going

An anecdote from Oliviu Felecan and Alina Bughesiu’s Onomastics in Contemporary Public Space, 2013:

A Zulu owned a dog that used to roll in dirt and dung when it was young. When it came to the house, everyone shouted, “Phuma phela!”, meaning “Get out now!” or “Get out, then!” As the dog became more disciplined it was allowed into the house and the phrase simply became its name. But if Get Out Now was now the dog’s name (asked the confused interviewer), then surely it was used to call the dog into the house?

‘Yes, that is so,’ was the answer. Then what do they say now to get the dog out of the house, seeing that ‘get out now’ brings the dog in?

The answer to this question was simple, and perhaps predictable: ‘we say “Hheyi, voetsek wena!”‘

“That is to say, in order to chase away this particular dog, one would have to tell it that much in Afrikaans.”

(Steven Wright used to joke that he named his dog Stay so he could call, “Come here, Stay! Come here, Stay!” “Now he just ignores me and keeps on typing.”)