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Blind Descent by James M. TaborBlind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, James M. Tabor (Random House 2010)

When men climb mountains, they confront their own minds. There are psychological barriers to conquer as much as physical ones: fear, uncertainty, mental fatigue. But all those barriers, psychological and physical, are bigger in caving – and particularly in the caving described in this book. It’s about the quest to explore super-caves, the deepest and most dangerous places on earth.

As a result, they’re also the most challenging. Climbing a mountain doesn’t cut you off from the sun, stars and sky or from easy communication with the rest of the world. Super-caving does and that isolation alone is difficult to endure as days underground stretch into weeks and months. It isn’t alone, of course: there are also wet, cold, dirt and constant danger down there. Sometimes deafening noise too, as underground rivers pour over waterfalls or churn through huge tunnels. But super-caving won’t make you famous: it isn’t as photogenic as mountaineering and the two great cavers discussed here, the Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk and the American Bill Stone, aren’t household names.

Perhaps they never wanted to be. Mountaineers move towards the sun, higher and higher into the light. Cavers move away from the sun, deeper and deeper into the dark. It would be interesting to compare the psychology of the two groups. Some people belong to both, of course, and Tabor points out that exploring a super-cave is like climbing Everest in reverse. Except that Everest doesn’t drown people. Super-caves do, because to explore them cavers often have to don scuba-gear and swim through flooded tunnels and highly dangerous sumps. In that setting, mistakes and accidents that mean little in open water often become deadly. Like motorcyclists and heroin-addicts, cave-divers will tend to know a lot of people who died young.

And fear of dying can cause it: it’s easy to panic when the risks are so high and the pressures so great. Cave-diving is one of the biggest psychological challenges that a human being can face. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone beat the odds, but only one of them could win the race Tabor describes here: reaching the lowest point on earth. Stone sought it in Mexico, Klimchouk in the Republic of Georgia. According to Tabor, Klimchouk won the race, but I’m not sure how anyone can be sure of that. The highest point on earth is easy to identify, but how can anyone be sure where the lowest point is?

Geoscopes may eventually answer that question, but by the time we can peer deep into the earth using instruments, the depth-record set by Klimchouk’s expedition – 6,825 feet deep in Krubera Super-Cave – may have been far surpassed by a subterrene, or earth-invading equivalent of a submarine. If that happens, earth-explorers will face a new problem: not cold, but heat. Rocks are still solid at 6,825 feet and we still know very little about molten depths of the earth. That’s why earthquakes are still impossible to predict. Klimchouk and Stone haven’t made great advances in geology, but they wanted to be seen as scientist-explorers, not as explorer-adventurers.

They found adventure all the same and Tabor points out that they stand in the tradition of men like Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. That tradition is coming to an end: up till now, technology has assisted minds and muscles. In future, it will re-shape them. Humans will turn into superhumans. And perhaps that will mean the end of exploration and adventure. Blind Descent may be a record of one of the last great triumphs of the old human race. If so, it’s an appropriate record: intelligent, well-written and vivid. There are some breathlessness and journalistic licence too, but Blind Descent is a good book about great feats.

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Sonic Wonderland by Trevor CoxSonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, Trevor Cox (Vintage 2015)

This book is a good example of “think ink”: it makes you think about familiar things in a new way. Sound is familiar to almost everyone, but it’s a much more complex phenomenon than most people realize. Only part of it takes place in the air; there’s a lot going on in the brain too. Trevor Cox looks at both sides of sound. And more sides than that, because it’s a three-dimensional phenomenon. And four-dimensional: time is involved.

That’s most obvious with echoes, which Cox explores in chapter 1, “The Most Reverberant Place in the World”:

I like to play a game with my fellow acousticians: guess the reverberation time. They usually pick an acoustically outrageous number, maybe 10 or 20 seconds. Even so, they always guess far too low. At 125 hertz, the reverberation time was 112 seconds, almost 2 minutes. Even at mid-frequency the reverberation time was 30 seconds. The broadband reverberation time, which considers all frequencies simultaneously, was 75 seconds. I called Allan over to give him the good news. We had discovered the world’s most reverberant space. (ch. 1, pg. 57)

And where is that? It’s the “oil storage complex at Inchindown, near Invergordon”, in Scotland. Huge tanks, in other words, that were built in the 1930s to store oil for a nearby naval anchorage. They’re “dug deep” into a hillside and now are decommissioned, so they’re empty, dark and rarely visited. But, as Cox discovered, they’re also acoustically fascinating: “Never before had I heard such a rush of echoes and reverberation” (pg. 55).

As professor of acoustics at Salford University, Cox is well-equipped to investigate and analyse places like that, but sound is too big a subject for any individual to understand everything. This book discusses a startling range of animals, objects and acoustic phenomena: bats, moths, barking fish, claps, bells, whispering galleries, echoes that conduct conversations, musical roads, icosidodecahedral loudspeakers, wave organs, abandoned radomes, waterfalls, singing sands and ringing rocks. Last and least, it discusses silence:

The ear is exquisitely sensitive. When perceiving the softest murmur, the eardrum barely moves. For the quietest sound that a young adult can hear, the eardrum vibrates by less than one-tenth of the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Even in silence, tiny vibrations of molecules move different parts of the auditory apparatus. These constant movements have nothing to do with sound; they stem from random molecular movements. If the human ear were any more sensitive, it would not hear more sounds from outside; instead, it would just hear the hiss generated by thermal agitation of the eardrum, the stapes bone of the middle ear, and the hair cells in the cochlea. (ch. 7, “The Quietest Places in the World”, pg. 209)

I’m not sure about “one-tenth of the diameter of a hydrogen atom”, which seems very small, but measurement is certainly essential to acoustics. Modern instruments can turn sound into shape, which is appropriate, because sounds are essentially shapes. You might call them sculpted air, just as waves are sculpted water. And light is sculpted energy. The parallels between light and sound weren’t obvious to the ancients, but they explain lots of things, such as why some frequencies of sound, like some frequencies of light, can travel further than others through air or water or stone.

And the visual phenomenon of iridescence has its acoustic equivalent: sonic crystals, which “reflect some frequencies intensely, mimicking the iridescence of butterfly wings” (ch. 8, “Placing Sound”, pg. 256). Unfortunately, Cox says that the sound is “unpleasant”. But this is a new field and perhaps beauty will be born in time. Ugly or exquisite, thunderous or threnodic, sound is a fascinating subject and this book will open both your ears and your mind to its wonders and weirdness.

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