Dec 14, 2022
Consider the peacock. Its plumage is legendary—those shimmering, iridescent colors, and those eerie, enchanting eyespots. But what often goes less appreciated (at least by us humans) is that this chromatic extravaganza is also a sonic extravaganza. The peacock's display operates in infrasound, an acoustic dimension that we simply can't hear without assistance. Which raises a question: If we're oblivious to the full vibrancy of the peacock's display, what other sounds might we be missing out on?
My guest today is Dr. Karen Bakker. Karen is Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia and author of the new book, The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology is Bringing us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants. In the book, Karen dives into rich realms of sound that, for one reason or another, humans have tended to ignore.
In this conversation, Karen and I discuss the twin fields of "bioacoustics" and "ecoacoustics." We talk about "deep listening" and "digital listening", "infrasound" and "ultrasound." We discuss why sound is such a ubiquitous signaling medium across the tree of life. We consider the fact that scientific discoveries about sound have often been resisted. We touch on debates about whether animal communication systems constitute languages, and discuss new efforts to decode those systems using AI. We also talk about turtles, bats, plants, coral, bees, and—yes—peacocks.
If you enjoy our conversation, I strongly recommend Karen's book. It’s really bursting with insight, science, and stories—all presented with unusual clarity.
Another year of Many Minds is drawing to a close and we're about to go on a brief holiday hiatus. But first a little end-of-year ask: What topics or thinkers would you like to see us feature in 2023? If you have any ideas, we’d love to hear them. You can email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alright friends, I hope you enjoy the holidays. And I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dr. Karen Bakker.
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
4:30 – The winner of the 2014 ‘Most Beautiful Sound in the World’ contest was a recording of a froggy swamp in Malaysia.
11:30 – A popular article about the use of acoustic technologies to discover and monitor whale populations.
17:00 – A research article about the involvement of infrasound in peacock mating displays.
23:30 – A research study showing that coral larvae move toward reef sounds.
28:00 – A review paper by Camila Ferrara and colleagues about sound communication in Amazonian river turtles.
31:00 – A research article by Heidi Appel and a colleague about plants responding to the sounds of leaf-chewing.
42:00 – A popular article profiling the field of “biosemiotics.”
48:00 – An essay by Dr. Bakker about honeybee communication and how technologies may be helping us understand it.
Dr. Bakker recommends:
A number of examples of the “sounds of life” are collected at Dr. Bakker’s website, here. The same site also includes recommendations for getting involved in citizen science. In addition to the books by Indigenous scholars listed above, Dr. Bakker recommends work by Monica Gagliano.
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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