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  The New Sound

My Super Power

During my first two or three years of college, I thought I was going to major in chemistry … more about that some other time, maybe. As part of that, one summer I went out to San Jose State University to attend the Summer School in Nuclear Chemistry. It was an excellent program. I must have known something about radioactivity before then, but it was all pretty vague. Afterward, it was all perfectly clear, so that for example nuclear energy was no longer mysterious and scary, it was just a technology with pros and cons. (This was shortly after the events at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, so there was plenty of “mysterious and scary” going around.)

I don't know if it's possible to get the same sense of familiarity by just reading online, but if you want to try, here's an outline to get you started.

  • Elements have different isotopes. Some isotopes are stable, some are unstable (radioactive).
  • An unstable isotope will decay, i.e., emit one or more particles and turn into a different isotope. Each isotope has its own characteristic decay rate, particle types, and particle energies.
  • You're exposed to the same types of particles all the time … less at sea level, more at higher altitude, even more in airplanes.
  • The effects of exposure to these particles are pretty well understood. For example, some particles stop harmlessly in the skin, while others can pass completely through the body just like X-rays.

In addition to learning the theory, we also got to do some lab work, which I'm sure helped to bring everything down to earth. I don't remember the details, but I doubt we did much more than familiarize ourselves with a few detectors and learn how to handle radioactive materials safely. I do vaguely remember thinking it was strange that liquids could be radioactive.

Sadly, the story of my super power has nothing to do with accidental exposure to radioactive liquids in the lab. It takes place, instead, in a boxy little classroom. There we were, the twenty or so of us, sitting at our little desks, and there the professor was, standing up front behind his desk, showing us different detectors and explaining how they worked. One, maybe a neutron detector, started making a high-pitched whine when he turned it on, probably because it used high voltage somehow. The whine was a bit irritating, so I was surprised when the professor set the detector aside and moved on to the next one without turning it off. After a minute, I had to raise my hand and ask about it, and in return I got a bunch of strange looks … because nobody else could hear the sound!

So, that's how I learned I had a super power. I don't know if I still have that ability to hear high-frequency sounds. I've had my hearing tested once or twice over the years (for other reasons), and there's never been anything unusual about it. Maybe I damaged my ears with loud noise later on? I do think one reason I had good hearing is that when I was young, I never went to concerts or listened to music on headphones.

However, there's another aspect of my super power that I definitely do still have: I can hear very quiet sounds. It wasn't one big incident that made me aware of this, it was just an accumulation of little incidents. For example, I've heard startled mice scurrying away through the dry grass. I've heard the wind whistling through the feathers of a bird flying overhead. In parking lots, I can tell which cars have been driven recently by the way their engines tick as they cool down. And, in my apartment building, through the walls I can hear not only the noisy neighbors but also some of the less noisy ones. So, like telepathy, super hearing can be both a blessing and a curse.

I'm sure there are better examples, so maybe I'll add a few more later on.

About my ability to hear quiet sounds, I do wonder how much of it comes from good perception and how much comes from simply paying attention to what's perceived. Maybe it's a power that one can develop.


  See Also

  New Sound, The

@ December (2015)