Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence
by George Michelsen Foy
–Reviewed by Swati Pandey
George Michelsen Foy’s search for silence starts in a burst of noise. Generally the wish of scolds and New-Agers, the very religious or the somewhat mad, silence captivates Foy after a particularly “thundering shrieking roaring” eruption of New York subway trains at the 79th street station.
It makes sense for the study of a subject most often defined, as Foy puts it, “almost wholly as an absence, a withholding or subtraction from a presumed normalcy of sound.” Foy, a lifelong urban dweller who admits despising those “milquetoast” subway riders who shudder at noise, seeks by ear or by gadget “silence wherever it might live,” and more often than not comes across sound along with it. His quest takes him from the city to the country, from headphones to flotation tanks and anechoic chambers, and from the most expansive place – space – to the most intimate, the pause between heartbeats.
Foy sets off with decibel meter in hand – stoking mass transit paranoia and more than one TSA manhandling – to search for quiet places. He finds that the city rarely gets softer than 40 decibels. The subway platform peaks at higher than 100 decibels, “well over the volume of a fully revved-up chainsaw held at arm’s length.” Shrieks like these, Foy notes, and the “toxic noise” that 30 million Americans suffer, can cause higher blood pressures, heart problems, stress, low motivation, and at its worst, headaches, nausea, fatigue and even death. By Foy’s count it’s enough to make a movement. But the closest we’ve come are laws prohibiting noise, which have been with us since at least Julius Caesar, who outlawed late-night chariots.
And New York today, even at its quieter moments, has a hum, one that Foy can hear underwater and underground. He anatomizes it with poetry and precision as the combination of engines roaring, drunk students whooping, air conditioners, cars, “the fizz of TV and radio…someone talking in her sleep, and a disturbance of sparrows, and the lisp of locust leaves in the breeze off the Hudson, the pat of rats going about their business.”
Sound seems inescapable, definitive of eras and places, Foy writes. The ringing of church bells defined territories – their inaudibility meant one was exiled – and the clamor of industry sent London and Paris writers and artists into fits. Young American female factory workers screamed from the shock of silence after 12-hour shifts at the dawn of the last century. The “war cry”, from primitive whooping to devastating sonic weapons, delineated allegiances and enemies.
The constancy of sound makes Foy seek absolutes of scientific and religious silence, only to find that our relationship to silence is a paradoxical one. Space seems to hold a promise of silence (and the quietest place on Earth turns out to be a lab searching for dark matter). But as an astronaut tells Foy, silence in space means the oxygen flow isn’t working. While many faiths and cultures idealize the pursuit of quiet, others see in silence death, disappearance, evil, or at least dullness. This split is apparent in less rarefied realms, too: Movies idealize the strong silent cowboy while still canonizing the creepiness of silence: “It’s quiet. Yep, too quiet.”
Foy wonders if hearing is too intrinsic to life to be undesirable. Our sense of sound evolved along with our sense of balance, that is, with our ability to act. Silence for an early human meant the absence of prey as much as the absence of predators. And as Foy finds when he interviews a man who can remove the implants that allow him to hear, the brain “invents what it longs to hear.” One of three men, including Foy, and two of three women make otoacoustic emissions from the inner ear, hearing things even when there’s nothing to be heard.
Perhaps the silence – or relative silence – we’re most comfortable with is the kind we rarely notice, to which Foy devotes a slim middle chapter. This is the silence between words and notes, or between set-up and punch line, the silence that make rhythm possible. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the quietest place in New York, by Foy’s measure, is deep in the old apartment of the newspaperman and endower of prizes for those who best manipulate silence and noise to tell stories – Joseph Pulitzer, whose specially-designed sound-proofing chamber comes in at 37.1 decibels.
Excerpt: “A fellow I think of as ‘Glory Man,’ an ancient black guy in a neat suit and homburg hat, walks past, clutching his Bible, bellowing, ‘Glo-ry! Glo-ry! Jesus loves you!’ He laughs in not very sane fashion. Though I don’t share his belief system, I have always admired Glory Man for his commitment to an ideal that seems significantly different from what powers most people in this lucre-crazy town. Glory Man’s voice is hoarse from shouting, but at close range he still tops 85 dB. Once he has passed, and the traffic is stopped by a red light, with the windows rolled down on 103rd Street the hum is clearly audible, and louder even than it was this morning, more like a faraway roar. But it carries no clear tone, and no more directional dimension than before. It seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. It lives in a special dimension of the city itself, the frequency of New York.”