Saturday, July 9, 2016

apologies to Dorothy Sayers? (spoilers)

So, it turns out that one of the notoriously dodgy methods used by Dorothy L. Sayers to kill a character in one of her Peter Wimsey novels may in fact have some science behind it.  A recent piece in the series "Science Question From A Toddler" on the website makes the point that sound waves, audible or not, are  nonetheless real, physical objects. Get too close to a really loud sound and it can inflict real damage --- including at potentially lethal levels.

After defining 'infrasounds' as sounds too low in frequency to be heard by the human ear, they go on to say

. . . extremely loud infrasounds can still have an impact on our bodies. Humans exposed to infrasounds* above 110 decibels experience changes in their blood pressure and respiratory rates. They get dizzy and have trouble maintaining their balance. In 1965, an Air Force experiment found that humans exposed to infrasound in the range of 151-153 decibels for 90 seconds began to feel their chests moving without their control. At a high enough decibel, the atmospheric pressure changes of infrasound can inflate and deflate lungs, effectively serving as a means of artificial respiration.

This will sound somewhat familiar to readers of Sayer's 1934 novel THE NINE TAILORS, in the course of which a man is killed by being locked in a bell tower of an old church, killed by the sound waves of the bells; later Wimsey himself almost undergoes the same fate but is rescued (once again) by his faithful manservant Bunter. As a method of killing a character, it's always ranked towards the dodgy end of the spectrum so far as the classical 'Golden Age' English detective era went: more plausible than the 1930 nonWimsey novel THE DOCUMENTS IN THE CASE (where, unfortunately for Sayers, the key bit of science turned out to be bogus), less plausible than, say, Agatha Christie's 1939 AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

I might add that, any light it might shed on classic murder mysteries aside, the piece has some interesting factoids. The loudest sound in historical times was probably the explosion of Krakatoa. The loudest sound recorded under scientific conditions was made by a first-stage Saturn V rocket during launch. The loudest animal on earth is probably the sperm whale. For those who might be interested, here's the link to the full piece:

--John R.

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