Audio, Etc. (June 1978)

Home | Audio Magazine | Stereo Review magazine | Good Sound | Troubleshooting


The following will diverge from the purest audio but, all in due course of time/space, will work around to that proper subject. So hang in there with me! Do you remember Aunt Minnie? She was no joke, nor is this. A generation ago, Aunt M. was that dizzy dame who had to have the simplest facts of early hi fi explained for her infinitesimal intelligence, so that she could play music all by herself without being electrocuted or something. I fear we writers ran her right into the ground for awhile. Quite sadistic. No doubt we all had our own Aunt Minnies, under a different name, somewhere in our own plaguy lives. Frustrating.

So now I feel frustrated and I'm bringing her back, if for a different purpose. I need her to help me defend--phew!--the very basis of our civilization and, incidentally, of audio. We do live in the d-dest age. We see the most extraordinary development of technology ever-in every imaginable field including our own--fairly bursting, blasting forward.

And yet at the very same time we can see the dimming everywhere of what can only be rightfully called the method of science. Help, Aunt Minnie! Too many of us, in various ways, in engineering, in the arts, and the philosophies alike, simply do not understand (and often do not respect)

the fundamentals of that method, which is never based on mere "facts," nor on the opposite, various divinations, inspirations, hunches, vibrations, oneness with nature, and the cosmos--but rather on a very rigorous combination of these. It is a starkly demanding discipline, this scientific method, as every good engineer knows, and on earth only man has had the intelligence, the brain, body, and memory by which it can be made to operate. But man is millions of years old and scientific method is far less than a thousand. We can lose the whole thing in a mere blip of time, and so lose our world, good and bad; since what we have is built strictly upon the method of science ... but enough. You can't even build a phono cartridge without scientific method.

So you remember Aunt Minnie? Good. Well, right now, great-Aunt M. (this is fiction and any resemblance is simply a resemblance) has moved into a ground-floor room, well away from our hi fi and the TV, where we can keep an eye on the old gal. Like so many old people (is this modeled on life!), she sometimes just wanders off and we have to retrieve her. Great-aunt Minnie thinks the hi fi is too loud (you remember she never could stand music louder than-well, a radio) and she can't stand TV. Too flickery for her glasses and why are people's heads so pointy? And the sound is so bad-her bone conduction won't take it. Also, she has a strange aversion to purple people, the kind you see smiling in the commercials. If you really want to know ... she prefers them lemon yellow.

Minnie Maneuvers

OK, here's the proposition ... great--aunt Minnie has got out again. Just quietly disappeared. Where has she gone this time? Have to get her back quick before she comes to harm. So do we sit down and await an inspiration? More likely (now you understand), we apply some quick and practical scientific method. It really is the most reliable and fastest way of getting through this sort of problem.

Not "facts" ... we have none. But we do have a lot of provisional info, and we immediately set up two hypotheses-working assumptions. Sometimes, the old lady just goes out to the movies. Buries herself in a nice, comfortable chair in the middle of all those interesting anonymous bodies and absorbs the big, gentle sound and the vast, large-screen pictures, and not a purple people in sight.

So Minnie just might be sound asleep at the movies.

But there is Hypothesis #2. Not a fact, but a tendency.

Once in awhile our great-aunt just ambles around the block at full speed, one step per sec. x 4, to visit with her oldest friend, aunt Maxie. Now Maxie isn't really an aunt, but proper scientific approach says that this is irrelevant. So maybe Minnie is with Maxie? Science, though, says it is not yet a closed thing. There are also n other hypotheses, including the one that states she may have been run over by a horse and is now in intensive care at one of three possible hospitals. One keeps one's scientific mind open to all possibilities, no matter how remote.

It is lucky that Pa Bell invented his telephone. For in great-aunt Minnie's case, unlike many of much greater import, we can check things out quickly.

Which hypothesis would you check first? Of course-aunt Maxie. (Or would you go out looking for a runaway horse?) There she is! You can come and get her any time, says Maxie brightly. End of story.

Shrewd Hunch

Except to note that what turned out to be a fact was previously NOT A FACT, only a hunch based on shrewd projections. That's science. More often than not, we can never check our hypotheses as facts. We can do no more than move forward, bit by bit. So, has our life developed.

Suppose (to get another brief story off my chest, this one true), you were that cunning British criminal back in the early 19th century who set up a most ingenious hypothesis, that if he could jump straight onto that new marvel called a train of cars on a railroad he could fly (almost) from the distant scene of the crime and conveniently vanish in London. A clever idea, all things considered as they then were, but alas it turned out to be faulty. Imagine his surprise when he was met at the London terminal by the criminal authorities, who swallowed him up on the spot.

The scientific hypothesis is always projected from available information and, even in the most precise engineering, must be understood to be incomplete, just possibly having missed out on some of the facts. There is no perfect hypothesis! That, in varying degrees, is what scientific method is all about. Our criminal gentleman, unfortunately, did not know that the very first operating British telegraph line just happened to stretch alongside the railroad of his choice. (If he had known this, he might still have altered his hypothesis to include a different railroad and thus have proved it a very fine hypothesis indeed.)

Speaking of criminals, I've been reading three books simultaneously, one on audio and two definitely not, and these three have in fact sparked these thoughts. Not Sherlock Holmes, but Doyle's "Dr. Challenger" series, another craggy character. Doyle and H. G. Wells (and Jules Verne in France)

invented that superb literary art called sci-fi, or science fiction, and nowhere is its methodology better suggested than by Holmes himself. Sci-fi is, you see, an ingenious playing with the very basis of scientific method and, as many people have observed, it is really almost identical in its approach, "facts," hunches, hypotheses, and all. Look at what those old boys perpetrated on the hunch basis! Submarines, moon shots, time warps (The Time Machine--one of Wells' best), and more. In sci fi the hunch comes first, the facts are made to fit. It's fiction, after all. But for every clean shot at the future, right on target, there are plenty of ridiculous misses, just awful from our later point of view, but great fun to read.

Isn't this exactly what happens in real scientific life? We are still making ridiculous mistakes, as our descendants will know. Our methods aren't rigorous enough sometimes and then we crash. Engineering itself, audio development, is not different. We crash, too. Like the diamond stylus that fell out of my cartridge today right in the middle of a record. Not envisioned by the design projection. But we move forward by not crashing. It's a rigorous discipline and we must never lose it.

Doyle was a curious man of science.

His "The Lost World," a story involving a fictional Amazonian plateau where by a freak of evolution (a hot subject in Doyle's heyday!) all sorts of monsters from the remote past still lived on, is one of the finest sci fi stories ever and astonishingly close to later information as it has subsequently developed. Take the sub-human ape men in the trees who battle it out with little brown "indians" down below, smooth skinned and of larger cranium; Richard Leakey, of the Leakey family that has been digging up proto-man in Africa complete with newly accurate datings, now hypothesizes that indeed earlier type and later man species did live simultaneously in the same territories and time. (Leakey is my second non-audio book.) A near-fact, getting nearer, but in Doyle's imagination it was merely an accurate scientific hunch. Charles Darwin, well over a century ago, theorized that man must have originated in Africa, based on sheer reasoning, minus facts. Long after that hypothesis, the Leakeys have shown that this, too, is a near-fact.

Spiritualistic Sophistry

A. Conan Doyle brings Pithecanthropus erectus, an apish man, into another of his stories but there we run into a Doylian snag. Doyle was a Spiritualist, Phase I, the Dead Brought Back. His ape man is made of ectoplasm recreated by a human medium.

Conservation of energy! Doyle explains that to make this ectoplasm really drains a human medium-it takes work in the strict engineering sense. You can't make something from nothing, after all. Strictly scientific and the only unproved aspect of the hypothesis is the ectoplasm itself, in which Doyle firmly believed. Alas, he "proved" its existence the wrong way, by simply stating that it was so. Even in audio we sometimes do that little trick.

Doyle went off into the beyond firmly intending to return as ectoplasm. He also, I might note, went along with a much more reasonable assumption of the scientists of his time, that there was an all-pervasive substance, without form or shape or mass, which nevertheless infused the universe-ether. Now that was a true and helpful concept in scientific method, a projection, a hypothesis, that could explain things otherwise then inexplicable. In the end, it became outdated and was retired (now we have neutrinos, quarks, cosmic rays, and a batch of other useful and partly factual things to replace it)but Doyle wrote a story in which an interplanetary belt of ether passes ac cross the earth and knocks all living things senseless, seemingly dead.

Marvelous descriptive writing, but a false premise. The ether passes on and everybody comes alive again. So much for sci fi.

Scientific Methodology

Audio? My third book, right along with Doyle and Leakey, has been a splendid manual on the specific designing of a new-generation phono cartridge that came to me from Shure, where the papers were presented early this year at a seminar (see Audio May, 1978, pg. 32). You'd be amazed how neatly these three volumes complement each other. Shure's exposition has had me really delighted (as has a very different JVC seminar report of the same sort)--for if ever there was clear, well-organized scientific method applied to one highly specific subject, it is here, described on paper for the benefit of both engineers and the intelligent press. We follow step by step, through the background "facts," the balances, contradictions, and tradeoffs, gathered up one by one, neatly isolated for study, then put together step by step, for the solution of this one, single engineering project. (JVC, differently, covers a wide spectrum of projects.) True, the result of the "hypothesis" is a commercial phono cartridge, the Shure V-15 Type IV, and this is Shure's special thinking, not necessarily 100 percent acceptable to other good cartridge engineers. But if we understand that proper science and engineering ALWAYS leave room for doubt, for correction and change after argument, for adapation and improvement, then these papers make a remarkably fine example of the right way to think things through, in a crazy, impulsive world. Congrats! And I'll be sure to tell Minnie and Maxie all about it.

(Source: Audio magazine, June 1978; by Edward Tatnall Canby)

= = = =

Prev. | Next

Top of Page    Home

Updated: Sunday, 2017-09-10 8:08 PST