Whale communication, musical aquariums - Science Update

Bob and Chelsea hear about the music of the ocean, including scientists that listen to whale communication, and how the Blue Danube is helping the visually impaired to see the...
25 March 2007

Interview with 

Bob Hirshon and Chelsea Wald, Science Update, AAAS


Bob - This week for the Naked Scientists, while you've been busy with flight, we've been diving under the water. I'm going to talk about public aquariums and how scientists are making them accessible to people who can't see. But first, Chelsea's going to talk about oceanographers who are listening to the world's largest animals.

Chelsea -  The fascinating songs of humpback whales are familiar to scientists and the public, but those of blue whales - the largest animals on Earth - are much less known. Now scientists from Scripps Oceanography in California have linked these endangered whales' sounds to their behaviours by tagging them with suction-cup recorders. Team leader Erin Oleson sped up this one sound made by feeding whales to make it easier for us to hear.

Erin - So they'll be feeding and then they talk a little bit - it's kind of like eating at a diner where you chat a little but and then you go back to eating for a while and then you chat a little bit.

Chelsea - Since sound travels vast distances in water, thanks to this research scientists will be able learn more about blue whales around the world just by eavesdropping.

Bob - Thanks, Chelsea. If this version of The Blue Danube seems strange, it's because it's being played by fish. It's part of a new project to make public aquariums more accessible to the blind. Psychologist Bruce Walker of Georgia Tech says his team assigned each fish in a virtual demo to a different instrument in the song. The instruments get louder and pan right or left as the fish move around the tank. Walker says it can convey where the fish are, and a whole lot more.

Bruce - We want to make sure that the "ooh" and the "aah" experience that a sighted person has when they stand in front of a massive wall of glass and see fish behind is communicated to our visually impaired visitors. So choosing the right kind of music is crucial to sharing that emotional experience.

Bob - Besides well-known pieces of music, Walker's team is experimenting with other sounds, including more abstract tones and rhythms. Ultimately, they'd like to represent not only where the fish are, but also how fast they're moving and what activities they're doing. The team also hopes that the audio-enhanced aquariums will add to the experiences of sighted people.

Chelsea - Thanks, Bob. Next time we'll talk about a computer program that knows how you want to die - at least it can take a really good guess. Until then, I'm Chelsea Wald.

Bob - And I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, The Science Society. Back to you, Naked Scientists...


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