Sounds of Science

BBC Madia Vale Studios, before a recording last year.

It’s world radio day! I don’t know about you, but I’m celebrating. I love the radio.

I think I just like noise. Maybe it’s because my Dad was a musician. He usually worked from home, on what are probably best described as “musicians’ hours”, so there was a steady stream of odd bits of organised noise coming from his office. He was always very focused on the quality of sounds around him, taking personal offense to musac and swearing loudly every time the doorbell rang or a car horn beeped to interrupt the more controlled flow of noise around him. As an orchestrator, it was the particular sound any instrument made which interested him most, and he’d come home from a recording session full of stories of standing out the back of Abbey Road studios with percussionists hitting bin lids. I’m not a musician, but I seem to have picked up some of his obsession sound.

I thought I’d take the opportunity of world radio day to advertise an event I’m chairing at Charles Darwin House next month on the sounds of science. Do come! There will be beer and cake and interesting people talking about the noisiness of science. It’ll be great fun.

On the run up to this, I’ve been thinking about how I could share the noises of my research. I’m a humanities scholar so mainly just sit in an office on my own. There’s the sound of an email hitting my inbox I guess, or maybe the bell ringing from the tower outside my office at Imperial or people gossiping over a cigarette by the window I sit near at UCL. There is also a really cool whistling sound that happens on a windy day in the space between the engineering departements at Imperial. Some day I really must record that. Or the glass bridge at the Science Museum. It’s held up by piano strings so makes a slight sound as you walk across it. It’s usually too loud to hear in the museum, with all the visitors, but when I worked there I’d sometimes walk across it when the museum was closed, lean out to pluck a string and just listen. There are probably other noises around my work I don’t think about. I’m going to have to take time to think and listen.

I also thought I’d share my top five listens in terms of science and technology; the podcasts I feel my week isn’t complete if I haven’t heard.

  • BBC World Service Click – I’m not just saying this because the presenter has an office next door to mine at Imperial. The global perspective on technology it provides is simply fascinating. It’s something I don’t get from a lot of the other sci/tech media I consume, and really makes me think about technology in different ways. Like the Guardian tech podcast, I also find it invaluable as a briefing on media issues.
  • Radiolab – It’s hard to describe quite how brilliant RadioLab is. Very simply, it is storytelling about science at its best. It will make you cry and laugh out loud in the middle of the street and you won’t care that it makes you look a bit weird because you are simply so absorbed in it. It is that good. Really.
  • Guardian Science Weekly – There are a few science magazine radio shows out there, but this is my personal favorite. It updates me on the news and will add in the odd interesting feature and/ or interview too. There is a lovely chatty feel to it, a nice mix of humble and strident, and fun too. I’m also a huge fan of the Nature one, though it’s slightly more serious.
  • Peter Day’s World of Business – This is maybe an odd choice as the focus of this is business, but perhaps because of this I find that when it does cover sci/ tech issues it does in a way I won’t find elsewhere. Plus, I just love the presenter’s voice and they once did a whole show about the history of pencils.
  • In Our Time – Again, not always science, but rather the history of ideas, which often touches on science. The presenter can sometimes be a bit deferent to scientific expertise for my personal taste, but it’s usually a good clever chat about something interesting and often has Simon Schaffer on it (I’m happy to admit to being a huge Schaffer fangirl). The archive is prestigious.
So, what are your favourite science and technology themed podcasts? I’d love to know. Also, do you work in a lab? Does your machinery, building or colleages make interesting noises? Maybe you could record it on your phone or something and share it? (Audioboo is good for this). Share your science noises!

4 thoughts on “Sounds of Science

  1. beckyfh

    As a humanities scholar, one of my favourite work sounds is to be heard in Humanities 2 at the British Library. It is the sound of hundreds of laptop keyboards being struck and, sitting on the gallery above, it floats up and becomes a trickling stream, babbling brook or rushing waterfall depending on how busy things are.

    Thanks for the list of podcasts – very useful.

    PS Cakes + tea = yum, beer + crisps = yes please! But not quite sure about beer and cakes!

    1. alice Post author

      Yes! That British Library Sound! I know it well.

      I tend to think of libraries in terms of their specific smells – English Lit space at Senate House, for example, has a very different smell from the STS collection at Imperial (something about the particular type of dust in buildings/ book mould of collections…?). But now I think about it they all have aural qualities too.

      If I remember rightly, the acoustics at SOAS, for example, are er “interesting” (esp. in terms of computers).

  2. Pingback: Sounds of… Tottenham Court Road | Sociable Physics

  3. tori

    those aural qualities have changed rather a lot over the last 10-20 years or so, too. Are the smells more stable? Though there is a synergy between the two… The DMS Watson library at UCL always smelt of hot dust: the smell photocopiers, I think. The sound of photocopying also pretty much defined my undergrad!

    The metallic scratch and ping-click of a lock turning and popping open , followed by the rumble of cupboard doors sliding back on their rollers is the soundscape of NHM Palaeontology for me. There’s a sort of hushed backdrop to this noise, exacerbated by the breathy, tinitis-like whine of the air-conditioning. Like someone continuously whispering ssshhhhhhhh!

    Fieldwork has sharper, more boisterous noises. One thing I love is that a colleague (who analyses stalactites and stalagmites to find out how old they are) hits them sharply with a hammer to hear them ‘ring’. A good ‘ting’ identifies a likely candidate with good calcitic material.


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