Quantum Sound

One of the hallmarks of twentieth-century physics is the development of quantum mechanics, which describes the properties of matter and energy at very small scales. At its heart, this highly abstruse and esoteric branch of physics is actually quite simple: all matter and energy ultimately consists of discrete units or "packets" called quanta.

Sound has always appeared to be one of the rare exceptions to quantum mechanics—it seems to be a purely analog form of energy. Recently, however, Dr. Leonardo Da Capo of the Bologna Laplace and Lagrange School of Harmonic Technology (www.bllsht.edu) made a titanic discovery—sound actually consists of tiny, discrete quanta called phonons. These phonons are individual, separate packets of energy, much like photons of light. (Phonons have already been used to describe the vibrational behavior of atoms in certain solids, but this is the first time they have been observed in free-field sound waves.)

When asked to describe his revolutionary discovery, Da Capo exclaimed, "Let me go back to the beginning." The original idea was inspired by the harmonic series, which is itself quantized into discrete steps, much like the energy states of an atom. He went on to explain that when phonons interact, they produce difference tones that we perceive as audible sound. The frequencies of individual phonons are expressed in yottahertz (septillions of cycles per second), which Seinfeld and friends call "yotta, yotta, yottahertz."

Phonons were first detected using a sonic cyclotron (shown above), which can also be used during half-time shows at Supersonics basketball games. Later, Da Capo identified an even smaller type of phonon that he calls a phonino or microphonon. Like quarks in subatomic particles, several phoninos are bound together to form a phonon. In addition, phonons can combine to create sonic molecules called polyphonons, which give rise to timbre.

Phonons share another trait with subatomic particles—anti-particles with equal but opposite attributes. In the sonic microcosm, these are called antiphonons. They are the opposite of phonons in that their frequency is very low, because they are somewhat like aliasing artifacts. As a result, antiphonons appear at frequencies very near zero. Of course, we can't hear these antiphonons, but Da Capo suspects they might be the cause of unexplained bumps in the night.

Da Capo is now working on ways to transmit phonons over standard broadband pathways. This could ease the bandwidth requirements of streaming audio, because the essence of sound is sent instead of the entire sound itself. The final sound would be reconstructed at the receiving end. Of course, the first-generation prototype of such a codec is called a telephonon.

Unfortunately, a Bolognese bureaucrat by the name of Enrico Fermata recently put a hold on the project. He believes that Da Capo is a psycho acoustician who must be stopped before he does permanent damage to the surrounding buildings with his booming sonic cyclotron. Fermata points to a nearby garden, where several pumpkins have been smashed by resonant antiphonon radiation leaking from the device.

However, Da Capo remains convinced that his work will lead to some major breakthroughs in the new field of quantum acoustics. He's even had T-shirts made with the slogan "Hooked on Phonons," which he is selling to raise independent funds for his research. If Da Capo can quell the governmental cacophony surrounding the project, his discovery could rewrite physics textbooks and earn him the Nobel Prize. In fact, he's already written his acceptance speech, which starts, "Let me go back to the beginning..."