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No. 129: MAY-JUN 2000

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The Sound of Shapes

The ability of some humans to determine the pitch of a musical note in the absence of a reference note ("perfect pitch") has been a favorite topic in Science Frontiers (SF#99, #102, and #111). It now seems that the human ear-brain combination can also discern the shapes and dimensions of thin, vibrating plates by the sound they make.

In one type of experiment, conducted by A.J. Kunkler-Peck (Brandeis University) and M.T. Turvey (University of Connecticut), subjects gave surprisingly accurate estimates of the heights and widths of three different vibrating plates. The plates were concealed behind a screen, but the subjects could remotely control a striker. In further experiments, other subjects could distinguish between the sounds of circular, rectangular, and triangular plates.

(Anonymous; "Listen to the Shapes," Science News, 157:171, 2000.)

Comment. We all know from experience that small, thin plates produce higher pitched sounds that larger plates. How-ever, the ability to assign accurate dimensions without some training is surprising. The same can be said for the identification of shapes. Who, for ex-ample, has been exposed to vibrating, triangular-shaped plates in ordinary life? Could we be dealing here with another innate talent that, like perfect pitch, seems to have no adaptive value in the evolution of humans?

From Science Frontiers #129, MAY-JUNE 2000. 2000 William R. Corliss

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