The Fast New Sound


So you know about the speed of sound, right? Don’t worry, it’s easy to catch up. Turns out sound travels at some speed. It’s like 750 miles an hour at normal temperature and pressure. Slower at temperatures and pressures that make the speed of sound slower. Faster otherwise. I told you it would be easy to catch up.

But how fast can you make the speed of sound? I don’t mean you particularly. I know you’ve got enough projects, what with looking at the news and then screaming at the wall. I mean you as if you were someone who wasn’t you, and who had to do something about the speed of sound. I admit I don’t know what I’d do about making the speed of sound faster. Maybe drop a loudspeaker from a helicopter and check how fast that sound hits the ground. I know, you’d think, what if we just made the sound louder? But it turns out loud doesn’t convert into fast. Loud just converts into nervous.

So we need better schemes to make fastness. The trick is that sound works by the elasticity of the thing it’s moving through. You know elasticity well, from all the time you spend bouncing. Me, I know it from trying to get the elastic band off this bundle of radishes. I don’t know how but the elastic band winds through every stalk, so there’s no taking it off except by going into higher dimensions of space, from which the radishes are still banded together.

Here’s where I read that a bunch of people at the Queen Mary University of London, the University of Cambridge, and the Institute for High Pressure Physics in Troitsk worked out just how fast you could make sound. It turns out it’s about 36 kilometers per second.

This fastest possible sound happens if you send sound through solid atomic hydrogen. You don’t have any solid atomic hydrogen, I’m know, because that only exists when you have, like, a million atmospheres of pressure. And I checked. The atmospheric pressure on Earth is one atmosphere of pressure. Maybe physics works a little different in Troitsk. Probably it does, or why would they have a whole institute for the high-pressure physics of Troitsk? But I bet none of the people with the institute are reading this. They’re doing things like figuring out the fastest speed of sound. They don’t have time to read me going on like this.

Or do they? We have to consider some of the benefits of making sound really, really fast. Like, at 36 kilometers per second, Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans would zip by so fast you could hear it a third time in your life. So there’s time savings involved. I know, you could just hit the thing on your iPod that makes songs play faster. You can. I can’t. My iPod is in the shop, being repaired. I hope it’s an iPod repair shop. I know you wonder why I didn’t check that first. The answer is that I have spent parts of five consecutive months now trying to get a Nintendo repair shop to repair a Nintendo Switch. No part of that process has gone well. You know that deep bone-weariness you experience when, like, you see “Suncoast Video” is Trending under Politics for some undoubtedly awful reason? That’s what I feel when considering consumer-electronics repair. Entering a storefront at random and wordlessly shoving my iPod at a person who turns out to be the hummus manager at The Pita Pit can not be worse.

What other benefits are there on the sound thing? Oh, I bet if you had sound the fastest it could travel, then inhaling helium would actually lower the pitch of your voice. I wrote that as a joke, but I think that would actually work? Except you have to start out encased in solid atomic hydrogen at more than one million atmospheres of pressure. I don’t know what you’d say in that case.

The article said it turns out the fastest possible speed of sound depends on the fine structure constant and the proton-to-electron mass ratio. The mass ratio is what you get from looking at how often protons and electrons are commented on compared to retweeted. The fine structure constant is a general agreement about how nice it would be to have some direction in our lives these days. How this gets back to sound I’ll never know.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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