Everywhere we go we are surrounded by sounds. Even in silence there is something, the ticking of the clock, the slight caress of wind, our senses are constantly bombarded with sound. But have you ever thought about what that sound actually means and where it comes from, how it interacts with our world and your ears? There are certain locations in this world that serve to turn upside down what we think we know, to trick our ears and cause us to wonder just what is going on, and here are a few of the strangest acoustic anomalies there are.
A very little-known aural oddity lies not in some remote area, but rather right in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the United states, at 20 E. Archer St., at the apex of a span of the old Boston Street Bridge between First and Archer streets. Here one can find a large circle of bricks with a smaller concrete circle within measuring only 30 inches in diameter, the whole of which is only 8 feet across and which has accrued the common, rather compelling nickname “The Center of the Universe.” Built in the 1980s when a bridge was rebuilt after a fire, this little spot has managed to become quite the oddity due to the inexplicable auditory anomalies it possesses, which have so far managed to evade any clear understanding.
One of these effects is that if you stand precisely in the middle of the circle and make a loud noise, the sound will be amplified back at you much more loudly, as if it were an echo chamber, yet oddly those standing outside of the circle will not hear this effect, and may hear nothing at all. Indeed, any sound from within the circle sounds distorted or is even inaudible to those standing outside it, and making it all the odder is that it only works of the person stands exactly on that small concrete circle, the effect broken if they take even a step out of it. Why this should be is anyone’s guess, as there is nothing particularly large nearby for the sound to bounce off of in such a way, and nothing really to account for this sonic disturbance, especially one so carefully calibrated as to only take effect from within that one small, well-delineated area.
Making things even more interesting is that any sound from outside the circle will sound far away, faint, and unclear to those standing within, and theories as to why all of this might be are varied. One idea is that it has something to do with an array of low circular planter’s walls that partially surround the site and might cause a parabolic reflectivity, while others think that it is caused by a steel expansion joint that bisects the inner circle. Others have come up with more far-out theories such as that this is some sort of vortex of cosmic energies, but the strange effect has remained mysterious and its origins inconclusive, and making it all even stranger is that no one is quite sure who made the circle or why, although it is obviously meant to capitalize on the auditory phenomenon present here.
Similarly to The Center of the Universe is mystery spot located at the Lake George Visitor center, in New York state. Here there is a circular platform with a map of the lake painted upon it and an image of a compass. Right in the middle are two metal rods that form an “X,” and if one is to stand precisely on this spot and face the lake, you can shout your lungs out and you will hear it eerily echo back at you while others standing not far away won’t hear this effect at all. It is an acoustic effect that has baffled researchers, and there are many explanations on it, ranging from the mystical to the mundane. One of the Native legends of this area has it that an ancient god called Katchalototail once appeared here and gave the spot its power, whereas other explanations just point to it being a weird acoustic effect caused by the position of the lake, mountains and nearby walls. One Jon O’Connor explained it thus:
The acoustical effect at this location is caused by the reflection of sound from the semi-circular stone wall. The sound is directed back at the person who is standing in the center of the circle, near the map of the lake on the ground (You have to be standing in the center of curvature of the wall to experience the maximum effect of the sound reflection from the wall. As you move toward or away from the wall the sound effect becomes weaker until it can’t be heard). This sound effect was discovered after the wall was built. There is nothing mysterious about it.
Whatever the answer may be, it is a very odd little anomaly that manages to draw in lots of curious visitors. Many of the acoustic oddities of the world have this same sort of echo effect to them. A good example is the Hamilton Mausoleum, in the town of Hamilton, near Glasgow, Scotland. It was originally constructed in the mid-1800s as a tomb for the 10th Duke of Hamilton, and is a 123-foot-long building built in a Roman style. It is also the home of what has been dubbed the “longest echo in the world,” with sounds reverberating through the structure for 15 seconds all the way up to well over a minute, depending on the source of the noise and its volume. It is not fully understand why the echo should last this long, but it probably has to do with the size of the place, its construction materials, and the shape of the walls. An even stranger echo effect can be heard at the ancient Mayan Temple of Kukulcan, in Chichen Itza, in the Yucatán state of Mexico. If one is to stand in the field directly outside of the temple, face the steps, and clap one’s hands, the echo will come back sounding like the chirp of a bird, an effect that cannot yet be fully explained.
Many of the locations with strange acoustic anomalies are what are called “whispering galleries,” where the tiniest of sounds can travel and be completely audible across large distances. One of these lies in Grand Central Terminal, in New York City. This is one noisy place typically, filled with throngs of bustling people shuffling along to catch their trains, but on one of the lower levels there is a quiet place near the Grand Central Oyster Bar with arches and tile work that holds an odd little mystery. If two people are to stand 30 feet apart and stand in precise locations, they can whisper in a barely audible voice yet the other person will hear it as if it is at full volume. It is apparently quite a dramatic effect, probably caused by the curvature of the walls and arches, and it is unclear whether this was designed intentionally or not, but it has become quite a popular spot for curiosity seekers. Another such whispering gallery can be found at the National Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., where if one is to stand directly in the center of the chamber they can hear a mere whisper from the other end of the room, and a similar phenomenon can be experienced at St. Paul’s Cathedral. There is also the 15th century Temple of Heaven, in Beijing, China, which has a long stone wall that will carry voices over it from long distances away like a telephone, although why it should do so is a mystery.
While there might be some rational explanation for all of these spots, it is interesting that the answers have managed to elude us, even as some of them lie right there in urban areas. What is the nature of these anomalous acoustic mysteries? Why do they work the way they do? Can it all be chalked up to mundane explanations or is there anything more to it all? Whatever the case may be, these are fun little oddities well worth a visit if you are ever in the area to check them out for yourselves.