Several weeks ago, a crowd boarded the elevators leading down to the Hayden Planetarium on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, ready to see, feel and hear the Earth tremble. For an hour or so, the dome reverberated with the planet’s recent seismic history, from its everyday crackles and pops to the jarring explosions of major quakes, such as the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Up above, showers of colorful dots piled on top of geographic maps in sync with the crepitations, and hazy seismic waves traveled across the surface of the planet, growing ever-more turbulent as they crossed paths. Leading this sensory voyage were the two founders of the Seismic Sound Lab, geophysicist Ben Holtzman and sound engineer Jason Candler.
The two first got the urge to translate seismic data into sound in 2005, in the midst of a casual “wouldn’t it be cool if…” conversation they had while touring through Europe with the Hungry March Band. By 2006, they held a public event at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where Holtzman conducts research, playing early iterations of their work through a circular 8-speaker setup. They refined their presentation over the next decade, working with many collaborators along the way, including Douglas Repetto, who created many of the movies on view at the planetarium.
According to Holtzman, hundreds of hours go into designing the functions that render the various simulations, using languages like python. "They compress hours to years of data into a few minutes of sound, pushing it up into audible frequency range. "The clips start out wild, he explains, then undergo a series of treatments—for example, the thunderous roar of major earthquakes has to be dialed way down as a matter of safety.
So what value does all of this have for science? Holtzman argues that hearing sound, in a spherical environment that simulates the planet, is a more intuitive way of understanding the data at hand, and of evaluating things like the direction and distance of the various wave fields.
As for non-scientists, the experience is a mind-expanding, perspective-broadening journey that deepens one’s understanding of the planet’s inner life. In Candler’s words: “It makes you more aware of the world, you know? It takes you out of the bullshit world.”
The Lab isn’t yet sure where they will take their immersive displays next—according to Holtzman and Candler, their ideal venue “hasn’t been built yet.” They imagine a projection inside a giant sphere, with the audience in the center of the anechoic chamber, entering the space along suspended catwalks.
Until then, you will have to settle for the below movies in full-screen mode, with volume sliders on max (and, preferably, with stereo speakers or headphones).
Watch this first to understand the key to the earthquake catalog movies that follow:
This movie shows earthquakes in the Caribbean region larger than Magnitude 3.5 (about 8,000 events), in the years between Jan. 1, 2008 - Dec. 31, 2014. The Magnitude 7.0 Haiti earthquake was on January 12, 2010.
This movie shows earthquakes from Japan larger than Magnitude 3.5 (more than 10,000 events), in the years between Jan. 1, 2008 - Dec. 31, 2014. The Magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-oki earthquake was on March 11, 2011.
This movie shows the seismic wave field in the Earth for two hours after the Tohoku Magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011. The sounds are real seismic data taken from 8 seismometers on a great circle around the globe, and sped up into the sonic range.
This movie shows all events recorded in the Global CMT catalog from 1993 to 2013 of magnitude 5.4 and above. The time scale is 10 seconds per year.
For additional movies from the Seismic Sound Lab and more details about each video, go here.