Karin Bijsterveld Karin Bijsterveld

A different sound in science

In Culture
Written by  Femke Kools Friday, 16 December 2011 11:57

Vici grant for Karin Bijsterveld’s Sonic Skills research

Volcanic activity has traditionally been predicted by measuring the vibrations of the earth. That is, until people started to see volcanoes as a sort of organ pipe, and started to listen instead to the sounds that they make. The result: better predictions of volcanic activity. “We don’t have ears for nothing”, says Professor Karin Bijsterveld, PhD. “But the act of looking is much more developed in the sciences, including technology and medicine, and visual information is valued much more highly than auditory information,.” In the coming years – and with the help of a sizeable NWO Vici research grant – Bijsterveld will put her ear to precisely these areas.

Bijsterveld is a professor of Science, Technology and Modern Culture at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She describes her primary field as “the history of sound, including the problem of noise and the interrelations between technology and music. As of recently, this also involves the history of listening within the fields of science, technology and medicine. That’s the subject of this Vici grant.”

Bijsterveld has long been fascinated by the phenomenon ‘sonification’: the presentation of complex datasets by way of sounds rather than in tables or graphs. “If you want to describe a certain development involving many components that cannot be presented in a table or graph, then this is an interesting alternative. It’s a composition, but without it having to be musical.”

For instance, a sonification has already been made from an EEG of an epileptic fit. “You can, as it were, hear what is happening in someone’s brain. This is useful in an educational sense, and a real experience in any terms. The spatial dimension is made audible. The supporters of sonification are a small but growing group in the scientific world. By breaking through conventions, you make people aware of those conventions. This is what sonification is doing in science. It puts the basic values up for debate. And it’s interesting to see where that is possible and where it is not, and also why this has emerged again.”

When PhD candidate Alexandra Supper approached her with the aim of researching precisely this, and when master’s student Joeri Bruyninckx decided to write his master’s thesis on the implementation of the tape recorder in ornithology under her supervision, something began bubbling in Bijsterveld’s brain. The idea for a Vici study gained momentum, and there is now great joy that the proposal did not fall on deaf ears at the NWO.

Pulling out all the stops

In the field of ornithology, bird’s songs were initially written down on paper, but this changed when the tape recorder appeared on the scene. Enthusiasts pulled out all the stops to make recordings of birdsongs: they figured this would be more reliable than trying to describe every sound using a Western notation system. Yet at a certain moment, people returned to the practice of converting auditory signals into visual ones. They question is why.

“We intend to systematically research where the listening is done, what it yields, and when it is replaced by visual information again”, says Bijsterveld. “We’ll look at the factory, the hospital – where doctors listen with stethoscopes, but also trust in equipment that reproduces auditorily how the patient is going – the laboratory, the field and the conference hall where scientific data are presented.” The research will cover the decades from the 1920s to the present, in the Netherlands, England, the United States, Germany and elsewhere. The researchers will use four different listening methods, such as ‘diagnostic listening’, which particularly aims at tracing the cause of something that is not working as it should. Car mechanics, for example, use this method all the time. “We’ll check whether these four types of listening take place, which skills you need for them, what listening yields in terms of new knowledge, and why listening is so often neglected in favour of the visual. What is the role of technology in this? The development of the stethoscope has been closely linked with the development of knowledge about pulmonary diseases. But when doctors talk with their colleagues, visual representation tends to be prioritised again. Why is this visualisation so important in science?”

Visual = objective?

The study has been set up in a broad and very systematic manner. “That’s the nice thing about a Vici grant like this one. Under normal circumstances you could never have five researchers get involved in different scientific disciplines in the same way and drawing on the same literature. A great deal has been written about the visualisation of science, which is associated with scientific objectivity. But the same ideals also apply for the auditory – it’s just that not much has been published about it.”

To find out what role listening has played in different areas at different times, the researchers will focus on things like trade magazines for engineers and car mechanics. “There’s an awful lots of these, and they’re tremendously interesting. The readers discuss among themselves how they listen; they describe how noises sound and what they can mean. You also find advertisements, from which you can infer how important sound has actually been. And, as far as it is possible, we’ll talk with ‘experience experts’ from different fields and periods of time. In the hospital you have patient handover reports, and we’re keen to follow these. In laboratories you have log books, and when it comes to fieldwork journals are very common, in ornithology for example.”
One result of the research might be that doctors talk about sound in a similar way to car mechanics. So do people categorise sounds by making comparisons with musical instruments? “It’s always difficult to describe a sound well. I find that fascinating. How do you talk about sound?”

Sound designer

With this research, Bijsterveld hopes to offer new insights into the history of scientific innovation, but also into everyday sound innovation. To the latter end, the research team is collaborating with sound designers. “Loud sound is associated with strength. Some designers want to move away from this, but are finding it hard to have their approach accepted. The prevailing attitude is that ‘if a car doesn't make much sound, it can’t possibly drive fast’. And if the car makes absolutely no sound, such as an electric car – well, that’s something we really have to get used to. This is culturally determined: we learned it this way. You can’t change this ingrained approach to sound just like that. Some sounds have a very stable symbolic value. You don’t automatically draw the link with history, but precisely in this day and age – where we can give anything any sound we like – it’s important to have more insight into this.”

The Vici project is called ‘Sonic Skills: Sound and Listening in the Development of Science, Technology and Medicine (1920–Now)’. Karin Bijsterveld is a professor at the Technology and Society Studies Department of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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