Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/364

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By Professor R. W. WOOD,


ANY one who has stood near a large naval gun during its discharge, will, I think, be prepared to admit that the sound of the explosion affects not only the ears, but the whole body as well, which experiences something not unlike a sudden blow. This blow, or concussion, as it is generally termed, is merely the impact of the wave of compressed air, spreading out in all directions around the gun. In the case of ordinary sounds, the compression of the air in the wave is so slight that only the delicate auditory nerves respond to the impact, hence we naturally conclude that sounds are perceived only by the ear. When dealing with sounds of very great intensity, this notion must be somewhat modified, for they certainly can be felt as well as heard. In some extreme cases, in fact, the sensation of feeling may be stronger than that of hearing, as in the case of which I shall speak presently. Is it also possible that we can perceive sound through the medium of any other sense organ, say the eye? 'To see a noise' certainly sounds like an absurdity; yet under certain conditions, sound waves in air can be made as distinctly visible as the ripples on a pond surrounding the splash of a stone. That they are not seen under ordinary conditions does not justify us in assuming them to be invisible. We all know that the currents of hot air rising from a stove, while not usually conspicuous, can be made visible by properly regulating the illumination, as by looking along the surface of the stove towards a window. The hot air is visible because in its optical properties it is different from the cold air surrounding it. The rays of light, passing through the unequally heated portions of the air, are bent in different directions, causing a distortion of objects seen through the heated currents. What we see, strictly speaking, is not the hot air itself, but a wavering and swimming of the objects seen through it. Yet I think we are justified in saying that the eye perceives the hot air.

Now sound waves in air, which are merely regions where the air is somewhat compressed, differ in their optical properties from the uncompressed portions, just as the hot air differs from the cold. As the pictures illustrating this article testify, they may be seen and photographed under proper conditions of illumination as readily as solid objects. We must remember, in the first place, that a sound wave travels with a velocity something greater than a thousand feet a second, rather