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Lab Rats

The sound of silence

What do scientists hear?

Koen Beumer 11 August 2010

Come again? Not all noises are unwelcome

Given all these disrupting sounds, it seems like a miracle that scientists and scholars even manage to produce one single paper

We all know how annoying it can be when a roommate is muttering and reading aloud without realizing it. Or when a plumber is working just outside of your office window, fixing the waterworks but breaking your concentration. It always makes me feel as if the noise is literally invading my data.

Nothing is more distracting to a scientist than noise. Whether performing painstaking experiments or meticulously studying ancient texts, the message is clear: science requires silence. But surely not all scientists work in dusty medieval libraries or equally silent sterile laboratories. So what are the sounds that typically surround scientists? When I started thinking about it, I was surprised to realize that in fact we are surrounded by all sorts of noise.

Just look at the street in front of my building. It even looks noisy. There is a terrace outside, with people drinking coffee, coke and beers, and once every hour they have to raise their voices to drown out the church bells. Cars and cyclists have to pull themselves up over a little hill, and on top of it all, the streets are paved with extra noisy cobbles. Faced with all this distracting noise, it is only a matter of luck that we can’t hear sounds from the sex shop opposite our street!

It’s not just outside: sources of noise are also found within the university’s walls. Colleagues not only mutter while writing, but the more productive they are, the more sounds they tend to produce with their keyboards. Several of my workmates like to listen to music, and although most do so through their headphones, it still manages to trickle through to my ears. And there are students around that knock on doors, walk on wooden floors with high heels and enthusiastically discuss their test results in the hallways. Given all these disrupting sounds, it seems like a miracle that scientists and scholars even manage to produce one single paper.

But luckily not all noise is a nuisance. There are birds that sing in the garden, bringing the always welcome message that spring is coming. And although the sounds coming out of mouths of my roommates at times do distract me from my work, they are nevertheless a welcome one at certain moments of the day. Sometimes sounds can actually break through an unproductive line of thought, acting as inspiring voices that help one’s research along.

Finally, silence itself is also a particular kind of sound with its own particular effect. When working in a silent library, with everyone walking on tip-toe, every little sound draws all the more attention. It is not coincidence that silence can be described as a state in which you can “hear a pin drop”. Is noise really the dissonance in the rhythm of academic work, or could it be that in many cases, sounds are just the unfortunate scapegoat for a lack of concentration?

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