Audio Legends

Everyone knows the story: Isaac Newton got hit on the head by an apple and suddenly discovered the physics of gravitation. Like the one about Archimedes discovering the basics of hydrostatics while taking a bath, this story turns up everywhere. Even Michael Stipe, in R.E.M.'s "Man in the Moon," sings "Newton got beaned by the apple good."

Trouble is, these stories are all wrong. Now, there are few things uglier than an academic who complains that the general population knows little about this or that esoteric subject, so I'll complain only once: I would love it if the world cared as much about the history of science as it does about Madonna, Bill Clinton, and baseball. But I know it's not to be. After all, once Jane or John Q. Public has taken care of the car, the kids, the spouse, and the bills, it's time to put on some music. It's not time to put your nose in old, dusty books to learn about the scientific method, the growth of mathematics, the evolution of epistemology, the development of...zzzzzzzzzz (footnote 1).

So what's the harm of a few apocryphal legends about old scientists, anyway? Those legends are a lot like audio components—if they committed only sins of omission, there would be little harm done. But instead of lacking information, these stories and legends tend to spread false information (sins of emission?). Still, at least in the audio press, this false information is usually benign.

Fi magazine's "Audio Shrink," Dr. Michael Gindi, recently counseled a tweaker who was feeling besieged by objectivist critics. "Remember Copernicus!" advised the good doctor: "Centuries ago," he wrote, Copernicus' new sun-centered cosmology seemed "as inconceivably silly as Mpingo discs do to many high-end detractors today." (Fi], March 1997, p.29). This is true—as Neil Young put it, if "this old world keeps spinning 'round, / it's a wonder tall trees ain't layin' down." Since we just don't seem to be riding a spinning planet hurtling around the sun, most inhabitants of the 16th century thought Copernicus was just plain wrong.

But it's not true that Copernicus stuck his neck out with this crazy theory because "the [old] geocentric model of the universe could no longer account for certain planetary positions." Ptolemy's geocentric system, dating from about 150 AD, was actually very precise and accurate. For well over a millennium, it worked just fine for all sorts of astronomical and (lest we forget) astrological purposes. Accuracy became an issue later, especially after telescopes became available and allowed observations to become much more precise. Copernicus was more worried about certain technical problems in the guts of Ptolemy's planetary models: how the celestial spheres that carried the planets were supposed to rotate, how these spheres nested inside one another, and so on. He found that the best way to solve these problems was to put the sun at the center of the system.

Sometimes, however, these stories are much more misleading. The old chestnut about Christopher Columbus, for instance, makes the entire human race look pretty stupid. We all learned in school that, in 1492, Columbus sailed from Portugal to find a western route to the Far East. The story goes that everyone at the time believed the Earth to be flat. To them, Columbus looked like a fool who was bound to sail off the edge. But, like a true hero, he bravely trusted his belief that the world is round, and the rest is history.

The story makes great copy, but it's flat-out false. Since the time of Archimedes, the number of serious, educated thinkers who've actually believed that the Earth is flat can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Generally speaking, no one did (footnote 2). Yet, as Jeffrey Burton Russell explains in Inventing the Flat Earth (Praeger, 1991), the rise of Darwinism (of all things) in the 19th century led to this persistent, widespread belief that everyone in the middle ages thought the Earth was shaped like a pancake. To the zealous defenders of Darwin (and science) against religion, it seemed natural to assume that everyone in those theological, unscientific times was just that ignorant.

At the same time, these stories make science look pretty easy, as if the basics of geography, the principles of hydrostatics, and Newton's theory of universal gravitation were right there, just waiting to be discovered—like the noses on our historical faces, we'd just never noticed them before. Then, out of the blue, Archimedes takes a bath, Columbus watches the masts of distant ships appear and disappear, Newton takes a little stroll under an apple tree, and Voilà! Science.

The truth is that humans have been pretty clever for a long, long time, and science is very difficult. Anyone can be a Monday-morning quarterback and think of Copernicus' or Newton's achievements as milestones just waiting to happen, as if someone else would have done their work if they hadn't. But that kind of view is hard to keep up when you see how subtle and complicated most scientific advances really are.

In a recent issue of The Abso!ute Sound (No.110, March/April 1997, pp.16-20), a reader wrote in to offer his two cents' worth about a debate between Harry Pearson and Robert Greene. The issue was microphone technique; specifically, whether a spaced-omni or a coincident Blumlein configuration gives better results. Robert Greene responded to the reader with a mini-lecture on the history of science:

"In the days before the rise of science, people used to argue about physical phenomena in what amounted to literary terms. Being unable to perform correct and precise theoretical analyses and unwilling to perform experiments, they attempted explanations that sounded plausible to them but that were seldom closely connected to what really happens in the physical world."

Once again, humanity is depicted as stumbling around in a haze of scientific ignorance when, suddenly, everything changes—science rises up and lifts us from the muck of ignorance. All of us, that is, except this reader, whom Greene sees as some sort of Neanderthal who just can't get with the program. "It is somewhat surprising," Greene wrote, "to see this mode of behavior continuing in the modern world." (p.16)

What the reader had suggested was that spaced omnidirectional microphones are capable of producing more realistic imaging than Blumlein configurations. Think of your left and right speakers as open windows in a wall dividing you from a live performance, the reader explained. You should obviously place mikes where the speakers (or these imaginary windows) are—that is, spaced apart, just like stereo speakers in a listening room. Then, on replay, the sound coming out of each speaker would approximate the sound that would, in a live setting, pass through each of these open windows (footnote 3).

In his response, Greene charged that the reader's way of approaching the issue was worse than being wrong or not very useful—it was "unscientific." There is a big difference involved. After all, a scientist can be wrong about something (or wrong about everything) and still have no truck with astrology, pyramid power, or other kinds of pseudoscience. But this reader had crossed the line, Greene believed, because his views were not based firmly on experiments. And here Greene brought up another of those great old stories:

"Anyone who is speculating on this subject [of spaced-omni vs Blumlein techniques] without listening carefully to the Performance Recordings demo recording or some similarly controlled experiment is in the same position as the speculators on falling bodies before the experiments of Galileo. Looking back, one sees that these speculators were just blowing smoke....Without controlled experiments, there is no science."

These experiments on falling bodies helped make the name of the 17th-century Italian natural philosopher nearly a household word. Being a vocal supporter of Copernicus (for which Rome placed him under house arrest), Galileo had to demonstrate that Aristotle's physics was false. One point of attack was Aristotle's belief that a heavy object's weight determines how quickly it falls to the ground. The story goes that Galileo climbed to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa and simultaneously dropped two balls from the balcony, one heavy, one light. Had Aristotle been right, the heavy one should have hit the ground far ahead of the lighter one. Instead, they hit the ground at just about the same instant. That one, loud thud proclaimed the rise of modern, experimental science. Don't believe what Aristotle says, Galileo taught us—do experiments!

This story, too, is now filed next to the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. Historians of physics agree that Galileo most likely never performed this experiment (footnote 4). He didn't because he knew in advance what the outcome would be. How did he know? In part, he relied on just those allegedly unscientific and literary ways of thinking that Greene finds objectionable.

Galileo relied on one of his famous "thought experiments": Suppose you were to drop, at the same time, two identical lead balls from the tower of Pisa. Obviously, they would fall side by side and hit the ground together. Even Aristotle would agree to that supposition. Next, suppose that you repeat the procedure. This time, however, you change things a little: you hold the two balls side by side so that they touch each other. Again, let them drop and suppose that they continue to touch all the way down. The crucial question is, Would these two balls fall faster or slower than the two that weren't touching?

If you think about it correctly, the answer is obvious: The pair that touches—equivalent to one ball but twice as heavy—will fall just as fast as the pair that doesn't. If not, then one of the balls must somehow act either as a drag on the other (so that the pair falls slower), or one of them must somehow speed the other one up (so that the pair falls faster). But if they fall at the same speeds as when they're not touching, then both of these in-contact scenarios would seem to be impossible. The pair that touches must fall at the same rate as the pair that doesn't (footnote 5).

That's how Galileo knew that Aristotle was wrong: A heavy object's weight has nothing to do with how fast it falls. This is where the "experiment" requires some creative imagination: You've got to see that the (hypothetical) pair of balls that touches is equivalent to one object that weighs twice as much as one ball alone. (Instead of the balls just touching, imagine them being glued or welded together.) Since this heavier object will fall at the same rate as either of the lighter, individual objects, Aristotle must be wrong. No (real) experiments are needed.

If you think Galileo's thought experiment is nifty, Einstein's are even better. But the point is just that scientific advances are usually much more complicated than these simple stories lead us to believe. There is never any recipe or algorithm for progress. In fact, most philosophers of science have given up trying to define "the" scientific method, or trying to find a neat, clean way to divide all things "scientific" from all things "unscientific." As in the case of Galileo, imagination and cleverness—the stuff of poetry and theology—often play roles in scientific advances. And controlled experiments are not always required. So if you're going to cut someone down for being "unscientific"—and this seems to happen all the time, especially in the audio newsgroups—your sword may be dull.

More important, however—and in the spirit of Larry Archibald's comments a few issues ago about homophobia in audio—criticism in this sort of tone is simply uncalled for. I don't write "Undercurrents" to spread cheer and goodwill, but I must go on record against this sort of rhetorical bullying. It's one thing to disagree with someone, but it's another to paint him publicly as an idiot. Besides, humanity has supposedly outgrown the practice of public humiliation—here in this modern, scientific age, that is.

Just the other day, I, too, was criticized for being backward and unscientific. A friend's system was sounding a little thin and shrill. He asked me to have a listen. "These components sounded great together in the store," he explained. "But here at home they just don't have the same spark."

Hmmm. Speaker placement? Cables? Power cords? I tweaked things here and there, but nothing helped. Later, at home, inspiration hit. I called him.

"I've got it! Get all your serial numbers, call up your manufacturers, and find out exactly when each of your components was made. I'm certain you've got a mismatch in there—maybe an Aquarian preamp with a CD player that's a Taurus. That might explain the graininess."

"Are you kidding?" he yelled. "You're casting horoscopes for components? You better keep reading those books about the history of science—you're losing it! You're..."

"But that's just it," I interrupted. "I was reading Newton's Principia in my listening room and, out of the blue, the source of your problem became obvious."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah. A Mpingo disk fell off the ceiling and hit me on the head."

Footnote 1: Why do academics make the best babysitters? Because when it's time to put the kids to sleep, they know the most soporific story there is: "In chapter one of my dissertation, I examined..."—George Reisch

Footnote 2: Ever since the writings of Aristotle and Plato, it was widely accepted that the Earth was round. A number of observations suggested it: traveling north or south, different stars become visible at night, events like lunar eclipses occur at different local times of the day. More theoretically, most theories of matter (following Aristotle) stipulated that the heaviness of things like earth and water (and things made up of them) derives from their natural tendency to move to the center of the world. The shape that lets most earth and water minimize its distance to the center of any one point is, od course, a sphere. These and other arguments were well-known to any well-educated individual.—George Reisch

Footnote 3: I first heard this "reciprocity" argument about microphone techniques used by Mark Levinson getting on for 20 years ago. If you get down'n'dirty with the mathematics of two-channel amplitude-encoded stereo, it becomes obvious that the hypothesis is fatally flawed. However, the TAS reader did correctly point out that all coincident techniques of necessity discard the time-difference information between the two channels, which leads to a lack of "bloom." For Stereophile's recordings I use a spaced pair of B&K omnis as my main pickup, but mix their outputs with those of a quasi-coincident ORTF pair of cardioids to try to get the best of both worlds.—John Atkinson

Footnote 4: E.J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture, Princeton University Press, 1986, p.335; Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, Free Press, 1965, pp.93-94; Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work, University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp.415-416. Drake believes Galileo did perform these experiments, but only on the basis of a lost letter, the contents of which can be inferred. On the other hand, Drake agrees that Galileo was confident beforehand of their outcome.—George Reisch

Footnote 5: Yes, fellow physicists, I am glossing over the details such as the effects of air resistance and the aerodynamics of spheres. Galileo ultimately claimed that all bodies fall equally in a vacuum (which is correct), and he knew that one should choose very heavy bodies for an experiment like this in order to minimize the effects of their reaching terminal velocity (which they would reach later in their fall than light, less dense bodies).—George Reisch