More Whale Song News

Blue Whale Songs Get Even Bluer
Why are blue whales singing with increasingly deeper voices?

By Emily Sohn | Wed Dec 16, 2009 07:00 AM ET

Blue Whale Songs

Scientists can’t seem to figure out why blue whales are singing at a deeper pitch.
Getty Images

Blue whales’ songs are hauntingly deep, filled with extraterrestrial vibratos, and utterly mysterious. Despite many attempts to interpret them, scientists still don’t know what the world’s largest animals are saying.

Now, the mystery only thickens. For decades, blue whales have been singing with increasingly deeper voices, reports a new study. In some cases, the pitch of their songs has dropped by more than 30 percent. Frustrated researchers cannot yet explain why.

“It’s a worldwide phenomenon,” said Mark McDonald, an ocean acoustician and independent researcher in Bellvue, Colo. “All blue whales are shifting their frequencies downward. They are all going in the same direction, and we really don’t understand it.”

“Maybe by putting this data out there,” he added, “someone will have a eureka moment and see something that really explains this.”

McDonald first suspected something was going on about eight years ago, when he started setting up underwater detectors to study blue whales across the Pacific Ocean.

To get the devices to work, he and colleagues noticed that they had to shift the detector frequencies downward every year. At the time, they didn’t know if something was amiss with the detectors or with the whales.

For the new study, McDonald and colleagues collected acoustical data on blue whales from as far back the 1950s. Some recordings came from underwater microphones put in place by whale researchers or the military. More recently, researchers have developed new technologies to monitor whale sounds over large distances and time-spans.

McDonald’s group was able to collect data from multiple points in time for seven of the 10 known types of blue whale songs.

Each song type, researchers believe, belongs to a different population of whales. Within a population, individuals match frequencies with each other.

For all seven of the groups, the scientists reported in the journal Endangered Species Research, the pitch of the animals’ voices has dropped over the years, with some groups falling more than others. In the most extreme example, blue whales off the coast of California are now singing with voices that are 31 percent deeper than they were in 1964.

One of the first theories colleagues propose when they heard about the findings, McDonald said, is that the vocal tracts of blue whales might be bigger now than they used to be.

After all, the theory goes, whales have increased in number and probably in size since commercial whaling was banned in the 1960s. Bigger whales should have bigger vocal chords that produce deeper voices.

The problem with that hypothesis, McDonald said, is that blue whales are mostly fully grown by age 8, even though they live for many decades. When it comes to body size, populations should have recovered long ago. Yet, their voices keep deepening.

“All sorts of people say that this is the obvious answer,” McDonald said. “But when you try to put the numbers to it, that one doesn’t pan out.”

The numbers also ruled out climate change, ocean acidification and a rise in ocean noise from ships, among other theories.

Instead, McDonald’s current favorite hypothesis is that, because their numbers have increased, blue whales are more likely to be close to other whales. That means their calls don’t have to be as loud in order to be heard. In turn, they can sing in lower frequencies, which don’t travel as far through water as higher ones do.

It takes more energy to sing deeply, though. To explain why they’re making that extra effort, the researchers propose that deeper voices are sexier — even for whales — and could be used to attract potential mates. Only the males sing.

There’s also a possibility that cultural change is driving whale voices deeper in the same way that our languages change over time, McDonald said — an intriguing idea that is, for now, pure speculation.

The fact that scientists haven’t yet solved this mystery suggests that there may not actually be a solution that makes sense, said research biologist John Calambokidis, of Cascadia Research, a research organization in Olympia, Wash., that focuses on threatened marine mammals.

“You can’t always expect animals will respond in a way that is logical,” he said. “A new thing like ocean noise might make them respond in ways that are not necessarily adaptive.”

The study is yet another reminder of how little we actually know about blue whales.

“There are still so many mysteries about these animals,” Calambokidis said. “New methods like acoustics research have opened up new insights. They’ve also raised new mysteries, and this is one of them.”

Holiday Reading for Physheads

So, the final exam for this lovely group of physics 53  DUML physheads is over,  grades have been submitted and students are putting finishing touches on the semester; getting ready to head off for the Holidays.  I can’t help submitting the following story relating to Tiger Woods car accident a short time ago:

A Gripping Read

There’s a physics angle to the Tiger Woods business of last week (that I’d not really been following since I was, thankfully, out of the country during the media blitz).

A physics angle? Really? Surely in my attempts to show the science angle in everyday things I’ve gone too far?


Well, actually there is. So there was some business with a car crashing and so forth, and there are photos of the interior of the car. There’s a book visible. It’s a physics book! It is John Gribbins’ Get a Grip on Physics, from 1999. tiger-woodss-car-with-get-close

It is out of print now, but apparently its Amazon (USA) sales rank shot from 396,224 to 2,268 over a short period. (For the record, before you ask about the other items in the photos (from Getty images), I’ve heard no news on whether umbrella sales also spiked. Or bottled water sales, for that matter.)

I like this story for lots of reasons, but the main one is that this shows to the general public that a high-profile sports star can find some time and interest to dip into a physics book from time to time. These popular level books are for everyone – not just the so-called geeks. Ordinary people with a range of interests who are interested in dipping into the larger culture that is available. I hope it encourages others to venture into this sort of reading material, without feeling/fearing that they are now going to be labelled a “science geek” for doing so. For all I know it was right next to a copy of a collection of Maya Angelou poems on his bedside table, or an excellent juicy murder-mystery novel, before he grabbed it and dashed for the car. That’s the way science should be – just out there among the other great stuff.

Here’s a Guardian story on it, with more information and some quotes from the pleased author.

I’m off to plant copies of D-Branes in the back seats of various local Hollywood stars, especially the accident prone ones. Hmmmmm, now which holiday parties is Lindsey Lohan going to?

Blue Whale Song Mystery

My sweet physheads have completed lab activities for the fall Physics 53 course and are now finishing the last of the material for recitation and preparing for the final exam — my how time flies.  For the lab on mechanical waves and sound in particular, many students choose to submit a short research blurb about acoustics in a marine environment and so I share this  Wired Science blog link about the changing nature of blue whale songs. Check the link above for the full blog…here is a teaser:


All around the world, blue whales aren’t singing like they used to, and scientists have no idea why.

The largest animals on Earth are singing in ever-deeper voices every year. Among the suggested explanations are ocean noise pollution, changing population dynamics and new mating strategies. But none of them is entirely convincing.

“We don’t have the answer. We just have a lot of recordings,” said Mark McDonald, president of Whale Acoustics, a company that specializes in the sonic monitoring of cetaceans.

McDonald and his collaborators first noticed the change eight years ago, when they kept needing to recalibrate the automated song detectors used to track blue whales off the California coast. The detectors are triggered by songs that match a particular waveform, and every year, McDonald had to set them lower.

1859 Solar Flare – Wired Science

From Wired Science — an interesting article about a huge solar flare in 1859.

Telegraphs Ran on Electric Air in Crazy 1859 Magnetic Storm

  • By Alexis Madrigal Email Author
  • September 2, 2009  filament_trace_big

On Sept. 2, 1859, at the telegraph office at No. 31 State Street in Boston at 9:30 a.m., the operators’ lines were overflowing with current, so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air.


In the wee hours of that night, the most brilliant auroras ever recorded had broken out across the skies of the Earth. People in Havana and Florida reported seeing them. The New York Times ran a 3,000 word feature recording the colorful event in purple prose.

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this color were most abundant to the northeast and northwest of the zenith,” the Times wrote. “There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid. There was no figure the imagination could not find portrayed by these instantaneous flashes.”

As if what was happening in the heavens wasn’t enough, the communications infrastructure just beginning to stretch along the eastern seaboard was going haywire from all the electromagnetism.

“We observed the influence upon the lines at the time of commencing business — 8 o’clock — and it continued so strong up to 9 1/2 as to prevent any business from being done, excepting by throwing off the batteries at each end of the line and working by the atmospheric current entirely!” the astonished telegraph operators of Boston wrote in a statement that appeared in The New York Times later that week.

The Boston operator told his Portland, Maine counterpart, “Mine is also disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?” Portland responded, “Better than with our batteries on,” before finally concluding with Yankee pluck, “Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?”

In terms of the relationship between the Earth and its star, it is probably the weirdest 24-hours on record. People struggled to explain what had happened.

NASA’s David Hathaway, a solar astronomer, said that people in the solar community were beginning to understand that there was a relationship between events on the sun and magnetism on Earth. But that knowledge was not widely disseminated.

Another theory held that auroras were actually atmospheric phenomena, that is to say, weather of a particular type. Proof of various sorts was offered. Auroras apparently had a sound, “the noise of crepitation,” or crackling, that marked them as Earth-bound phenomena. Even weirder explanations arose, like meteorologist Ebenezer Miriam’s hilariously quacky quote in The New York Times.

“The Aurora (electricity discharged from the craters of volcanoes) either dissolves in the atmosphere, and is thus diffused through space or concentrated into a gelatineus[sic] substance forming meteors, called shooting stars,” Miriam wrote. “These meteors dissolve rapidly in atmospheric air, but sometimes reach the earth before dissolving, and resemble thin starch.”

But some scientists were on the right track. Eighteen hours before the storm hit, Richard Carrington, a young but well-respected British astronomer, had been making his daily sunspot observations when he saw two brilliant spots of light. We know now that what he was seeing was the heating up of the surface of the sun beyond its standard fusion-powered temperature of about 5,500 degrees Celsius. The energy to do so came from a magnetic explosion as a distended part of the sun’s magnetic field snapped and reconnected.

“They give off the energy equivalent of about 10 million atomic bombs in the matter of an hour or two,” Hathaway said. “[The 1859] one was special, and it was noticed because it was a white light flare. It actually heated up the surface of the sun well enough to light up the sun.”

Though back then Carrington didn’t know what he was looking at, five years of staring at the sun had taught him that what he was seeing was unprecedented. When in the wee hours of the next night, the skies all over the globe began turning brilliant colors, Carrington knew he was on to something.

“I think that it represents a tipping point in astronomy because for the first time, astronomers had concrete evidence that a force other than gravity could communicate itself across 93 million miles of space,” said Stuart Clark, author of the book The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began.

Still, it would be decades before the scientific theory would catch up with the observations. British heavyweights like Lord Kelvin opined that the sun could never deliver the level of energy that had been observed on Earth. Understanding what was happening without understanding how the sun worked or the nature of particles was not exactly easy.

“It’s a great example of where theory and observation don’t match up,” Clark said. “The scientific establishment tends to believe the theory, but it’s usually the other way around, and the observations are correct. You have to build up a critical mass of observations to shift the scientific theory.”

Over time, more and more observations did shift the theory, and the sun was held properly responsible for geomagnetic storms. The technological lesson that electrical equipment could be disturbed was largely forgotten, though.

When a geomagnetic storm hits the Earth, it shakes the Earth’s magnetosphere. As the magnetized plasma pushes the Earth’s magnetic field lines around, currents flow. Those currents have their own magnetic fields and soon, down at the ground, strong electromagnetic forces are in play. In other words, your telegraph can run on “auroral current.”

Geomagnetic storms, though, can have less benign impacts. On August 4, 1972, a Bell Telephone line running from Chicago to San Francisco got knocked out. Bell Labs researchers wanted to find out why, and their findings led them right back to 1859 and the auroral current.

Louis Lanzerotti, now an engineering professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, went digging in the Bell Labs library for similar events and explanations. Along with field research, the history became the core of a new approach to building more robust electrical systems.

“We did all this analysis and wrote this paper in ‘74 for the Bell Systems Technical Journal,” Lanzerotti said. “And it really made a helluva of a difference in Bell Systems. They redesigned their power systems.”

The fight to secure the Earth’s technical systems from geomagnetic anomalies continues. Late last year, the National Academies of Science put out a report on severe space weather events. If a storm even approaching 1859 levels were to happen again, they concluded the damage could range upwards of a $1 trillion, largely because of disruptions to the electrical grid.

The data on how often huge storms occur is scarce. Ice cores are the main evidence we have outside human historical documents. Charged particles can interact with nitrogen in the atmosphere, creating nitrides. The increased concentration of those molecules can be detected by looking at ice cores, which act like a logbook of the atmosphere at a given time. Over the last 500 years of this data, the 1859 event was twice as big as anything else.

Even so, the sun remains a bit of a mystery, particularly these tremendously energetic events. Scientists like Hathaway are able to describe why one geomagnetic storm might be bigger than another based on the details of how it arose, but they are hard pressed to predict when or why a freakishly large storm might arise.

Scientific understanding of how the sun impacts the Earth and its tech-heavy humans isn’t complete, but at least we know when it got its start: the early hours of September 2, 1859.

“It’s at that point we realize that these celestial objects affected our technologies and the way we wanted to live our lives,” Stuart said.

And it turns out, our burning hot star still does.


Magnetic Field Art

I loved this from the “Evil Mad Scientist” site.  While the results of this particular experimental trial were not entirely satisfactory, the whole concept was fun and interesting to consider.  Take a look at a most interesting “comment” I found associated with this post.  For those who have not checked out their site, do so — and bookmark it 🙂  I have added it to my Google reader.


Impractical idea: Iron filing nail polish

spiky nail polishSome time ago we came across a subtle magnetic nail polish. It had fine magnetic dust in it, and could record the local magnetic field profile at the time that the polish dried.

But hey, why can’t you do this with full-on iron filings? So, for our own bold and impractical take on this concept, we tried mixing genuine iron filings with nail polish (clear, in this case). Mix well, paint on, hold finger over (large) magnet while it dries. Don’t even think about trying to fit those spiky fingertips into gloves.

Results? So-so. The particles aligned with the field and solidified, but have more clumping than we’d like to see.

Maybe slightly finer particles would have been better. Much better would be if we found a good way to work with ferrofluid that could be hardened, or perhaps a version of magnetic viewing film that could be painted onto surfaces. Or maybe, if our version above were redone with RTV silicone, the particles could wiggle around in the presence of an external field.

We leave these important questions to higher minds than our own.

Contributed by: Windell on Friday, August 07 2009 @ 08:43 PM PDT, in EMSL Projects

Here is the comment:

only a tad off subject, but an idea similar to this has been done by body modification artist Steve Haworth who implanted a small powerful magnet encapsulated in PTFE material into the tip of his left ring finger.
a few people in the modification community have followed suit, and along with Steve, have all reported a new human sense of magnetic fields.
Steve has been quoted as saying “I love putting my finger near an electrical socket and feeling the magnetic impulses flow”
I’ve personally spoken to one person who has undergone this type of procedure, and he reports that he can walk into a room and instantly sense all the magnetic fields emitted from objects in that room simply by holding his hand over the object

Magnetic Implants have been in the works for quite a few years in the mod culture, and have yet to be perfected as the encapsulation material has a tendency to breakdown after a couple years, or even months, thus exposing the raw magnet to the flesh.

Reports of this type of implant can be found all around the internet, but is most famously covered on (as that is where Steve first announced a successful implant).

Duke Physics News

Fire Meets Ice
Superhot And Supercold Remarkably Similar In The ‘Fermion’ World

July 22nd, 2009

By Monte Basgall

Trapping and cooling a microscopic clump of gas and then suddenly releasing it would normally result in the gas rapidly expanding outward in all directions, like a spherical bubble.

A small blob of Lithium-6 gas, chilled ultracold by a laser light trap, does an unexpected thing when the trap is released.
A small blob of Lithium-6 gas, chilled ultracold by a laser light trap, does an unexpected thing when the trap is released.

But what if it doesn’t? When a result doesn’t turn out as anticipated, nature may be revealing its secrets. And when the result also sheds light on Big Scientific Questions that weren’t even part of the experiment, researchers sit up and pay even closer attention.

That’s what’s been happening since Duke physicist John Thomas did this experiment with lithium-6. The key was using only light to chill the gas to almost absolute zero and adding the right amount of magnetic energy, a combination pioneered in Thomas’s lab.
Duke Video-Thomas Talks

Instead of expanding evenly, the gas blob took the shape of a cigar standing on its tip. It then morphed asymmetrically within milliseconds into “this funny flow that stood still in one direction but expanded rapidly in the other,” recalls Thomas, an expert on the physics of ultracold temperatures and the university’s Fritz London Professor of Physics.

The stand-up stogie didn’t grow any taller, as Thomas noted with the aid of a microscope and time-freezing camera. But it bulged topsy-turvily in the middle, swelling into a kind of melon shape that shifted the overall orientation from vertical to horizontal.

In a much-cited report published in the Nov. 13, 2002 issue of the journal Science, Thomas’s research group suggested this phenomena pointed to a never-before-observed form of group behavior among this kind of gas’s frigid atoms.

It’s a condition that might help explain important phenomena that have been difficult to study, such as the flow of electrons in high-temperature superconductors, or the tightly bound nuclear matter in neutron stars, they said.Subsequent reports in Science and other journals firmed up the notion that the gas could be exhibiting the coordinated flow of a special kind of superfluidity — a strange liquid state in which very cold substances seem to move so effortlessly that nothing can stop them, in some cases even climbing walls.

At about the same time, researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) were getting intriguing results from their attempts to recreate the dawn of creation’s first white-hot microseconds. They did so by smashing together gold atoms propelled to nearly light speed, producing temperatures 150,000 times hotter than the sun’s interior within a time interval too fleet to measure.

This big bash at RHIC was supposed to liberate quarks — the fundamental units of all matter — from the gluons that normally hold them together, creating a hyper-energized gas called a quark-gluon plasma.

Using statistics and simulations to visualize what could not be seen, scientists discovered the plasma actually acts like a superhot fluid. And it behaves a lot like Thomas’s frozen cigars and melons. Both exhibit what the scientists called an “elliptic flow,” ballooning preferentially in only one direction. Thomas calls this “anisotropic expansion.”The Big Chill | Initial cooling: Six red lasers converge on a ball of lithium-6 gas, gently forcing its atoms to slow their motions, effectively cooling them to 150 millionths of a degree above absolute zero. (Final cooling) The red lasers are shut off, leaving a single infrared laser (green) focused on the atoms. Adjusting the IR laser’s intensity makes some atoms collide and evaporate, chilling the remainder to just 50 billionths of one degree. A magnetic field (blue arrows) then tunes the atoms’ energy levels to make the gas ball football-shaped. | Modified, by permission, from American Scientist | Illustration by Tom DunneSoon illustrations from Thomas’s journal reports on the cold temperature experiment were being displayed at quark-gluon symposia — literally bridging the gap separating the very coldest from the very hot.


Further research suggested that although the systems exist at opposite extremes of temperature, both behave like “nearly perfect” fluids, flowing with practically no impeding viscosity.

Theorists involved in superstring physics have taken notice of this remarkable convergence. Some have begun using their complicated mathematical tools to bridge quantum mechanics and general relativity and explain why Thomas’s supercold world bears similarities to the superhot. Already some of their calculations have yielded insights.

“RHIC’s system is at about 2 trillion degrees, while we’re typically at one-tenth of a microdegree above absolute zero — 19 orders of magnitude difference in temperature!” Thomas says. In terms of density, “there is also about 25 orders of magnitude difference between theirs and ours.”

And yet, Thomas, the experts on quark-gluon plasma and string theorists came together in a single session at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago to describe “the surprising confluence of such different physics fields as a sort of perfect storm,” according to the magazine Science News.

To have a system that connects cold, condensed gases to high-temperature superconductors and neutron stars and then to quark-gluon matter and even string theory is pretty amazing,” Thomas said.

Various researchers are still exploring what these very different phenomena might have in common. But Thomas said the special behavior of his Lithium-6 gas is related to the nature of its atoms.

Lithium-6 is among many atomic isotopes classified as “fermions.” Greta Garbos of the atomic world because they “vant to be alone,” fermions are loners compared to their chummier alter-ego counterpart atoms, the “bosons.”

The key is the state of their “spins,” an electromagnetic trait that all fundamental particles possess. Fermions have an “odd” spin of 1/2, which means they cannot share the same energy states with each other. Bosons, on the other hand, actually prefer getting together. Previously only certain boson type atoms were known to exhibit the group behavior of superfluidity.

Protons, neutrons and electrons — the constituents of atoms — are fermions, too. Were it not for their mutual repulsions, “we would collapse,” says Duke theoretical physicist Berndt Mueller. “We’re made up of positively charged nuclei and negative charged electrons, which should attract,” he explains. “But those are also all fermions, so they try to keep away from each other.”

Thomas’s experiments test the limits of this repulsion by making fermions very cold. Cooled to 50 billionths of a degree above absolute zero and influenced by the weird principles of quantum mechanics, the atoms’ spheres of influence balloon to an incredible large millionths of a meter. They also crowd up as closely as nature allows.

His group was the first to both chill fermions low enough with laser beams and also trick them into behaving for a short time like they’re part of one big molecule. Turning up a magnetic field to just the right level makes them want to collide and pair up into what he calls a “strongly interacting system.” It’s their exceptional interactivity that produces the exploding-cigar effect and also makes his fermions flow like a nearly perfect fluid. They enter a realm known as “universal behavior,” where they emulate traits of other very different systems.That’s why scientists are now using strongly interactive fermions to model how high-temperature superconductors work.

“You can test the theory,” Thomas says. “It’s easier using our gas because it’s a very controlled system.”Universally behaving fermions also let researchers model microscopic properties within the densest of nuclear matter – something not readily tested on a distant neutron star.

Monte Basgall is a Senior Science Writer in Duke News and Communications.