Hidden messages, old ears: iPad app tests sound phenomena

Created by the Exploratorium museum, the Sound Uncovered app brings science experiments to your tablet.

An experiment slide from Sound Uncovered. Click to enlarge. Exploratorium

Don't believe everything you hear -- a new science app reminds iPad users that our brains like to play tricks on us.

Created by the Exploratorium museum, Sound Uncovered replicates sound phenomena experiments, using examples that test what you thought you knew -- like why we can hear our car engines -- and introduces some sounds you may have never heard before.

"It's revealing the kink in the system, how your brain works," said Jean Cheng, project director of the online engagement group for the Exploratorium. The app's creators -- a mix of scientists and creatives who work out of the museum's labs -- built the app to make sure the user is at the center of the experiment. Each experiment requires users to tap buttons or move the iPad.

Some of these phenomena are natural, like how you can test a person's age using frequency. One experiment about verbal palindromes touches on backmasking, a technique, popularized by The Beatles, that records a hidden message backward on a track.

Other phenomena are perceived ones, like pitch on the chromatic scale. One slide explains how car manufacturers often bottle engine noises and play them for drivers within car cabins because it makes people feel like the engine is more powerful.

There are a dozen experiments, but the museum plans to add more with the next update.

Sound Uncovered is the second Uncovered app released by the Exploratorium, which draws inspiration from some of the museum's physical exhibits. The museum's first Uncovered app focused on color.

The San Francisco-based Exploratorium was started by Manhattan Project physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer in 1969. The museum says it reaches 180 million people annually through its exhibits presented in 1,000 science centers, as well as educational programs and digital tools.

Like the museum, the app is meant to change the way people think about learning, Rob Semper, the Exploratorium's executive associate director, said.

"People think they stop learning," he said. "We want this to lead to personal inquiry, questioning. And, have people more curious in the world."


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