Sometimes, this would lead to a begrudging official investigation, but these nearly always ended inconclusively. Far more likely was widespread dismissal of the complaints, which made the experience that much more frustrating for those who heard the Hum. Though University of Southampton researchers R.N. Vasudevan and Colin G. Gordon, who investigated claims of the Hum in 1977, established that it was ?very probably? a real phenomenon and not an auditory hallucination, Hum sufferers have been consistently written off as either delusional or simply suffering from tinnitus. When asked by The Independent about the Hum in 1994, Jonathan Hazell, head of research at the U.K.?s Royal National Institute for Deaf People, responded, ?Rubbish. Everybody who has tinnitus complains at first of environmental noise. ?Hummers? are a group of people who cannot accept that they have tinnitus.?
Dismissed by governments and mainstream researchers, Hum sufferers become demoralized, despondent. In such isolation the discourse festers, breeding conspiracy theories and kooks. In 2009, the first episode of the reality show Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura offered a theory of the Hum possibly stemming from a government mind-control device, and in a 1998 X-Files episode the Hum (or something very much like it) caused spontaneous head explosions. On a Facebook page for Hum sufferers, one rambling post describes how ?advanced satellite technology? is being used as ?a brutal torture instrument by transmitting sounds, voices, and images directly into the brain, creating numerous pains and sensations throughout the body and significantly altering energy level and emotional states.? The post goes on to name several people who have been targeted by this technology, including Miriam Carey, the dental hygienist who drove through a White House checkpoint in 2013, setting off a high-speed chase that led to her death, and Aaron Alexis, the civilian contractor who, on September 16, 2013, entered the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard and killed twelve people before dying in a firefight with police. Alexis has become, for some, proof positive that the Hum is not merely an annoyance but a massive government conspiracy. In a message later recovered by authorities from his computer, Alexis wrote that ?Ultra low frequency attack is what I?ve been subject to for the last three months. And to be perfectly honest, that is what has driven me to this.?
There are many things we know the Hum is not, but few things we actually know it is. I?d first heard stories of the Hum a few years ago, in the genre of weird conspiracies and odd occurrences one reads about when traveling the internet: another tin foil hat theory to go with the UFOs, Flat Earthers, and Raelians. But then I learned about Glen MacPherson, a high school math teacher in British Columbia, who had attracted attention not for sharing strange tales of the Hum but for doing serious, scientific work on the phenomenon. Word was that he had undertaken a research project that, if successful, could hold the secret to understanding the Hum once and for all. So I traveled to western Canada to hear about the sound.
As far back as the early nineteenth century, one finds records of strange noises, mysterious humming, inexplicable sounds. A traveler summiting the Pyrenees in 1828 described how, when his party first beheld Mount Maladeta, ?we were most forcibly struck with a dull, low, moaning, aeolian sound, which alone broke upon the deathly silence, evidently proceeding from the body of this mighty mass, though we in vain attempted to connect it with any particular spot, or assign an adequate cause for these solemn strains.? These enigmatic sounds were attributed to various causes?insect swarms just out of sight, shifting sands?but, being rare and benign, they were mostly ignored.
The Industrial Revolution changed attitudes toward noise, as machines and urban life introduced a constant, deafening racket into the world. By the end of the nineteenth century we?d begun a war on the noise we had created, particularly in the United States, where it quickly became a question of personal liberty and privacy. ?How soon shall we learn,? the magazine Current Literature editorialized in 1900, ?that one has no more right to throw noises than they have to throw stones into a house?? In 1930, the Saturday Evening Post commented that ?People dare not enter a man?s house or peep into it, yet he has no way of preventing them from filling his house and his office with nerve-racking noise.?
Using recordings uploaded to YouTube, Louivere+Vanessa broadcast audio files through a digital spectrometer to create images. These were then printed, using archival inkjet printer, onto handmade Japanese kozo paper, which was dibond primed with gesso, covered in gold leaf, and coated with resin. The resulting photographs are aural visualizations of an elusive noise: the Hum. Above is a recording from Bristol, England.
Different cities tried different tactics. New York set up ?Zones of Quiet? around hospitals and schools, and established the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, which pushed through a 1907 act prohibiting the needless use of steam whistles in maritime traffic?the first noise-abatement legislation passed by Congress. In Baltimore, a dedicated anti-noise cop named Maurice E. Pease was appointed to instruct any huckster shouting about their wares that business could be conducted more efficiently via printed signs. Chicago banned the hawking of wares outright in 1911, and peddlers responded with a riot that stretched over three days, in what the Tribune called ?a day of rioting and wild disorder such as has not been seen in Chicago since the garment workers? strike.?
After the introduction in the 1920s of the decibel as an objective unit for measuring noise, cities were able to implement noise-abatement policies that cut the overall volume to (mostly) manageable levels. But perversely, it?s precisely these noise-reduction laws that allowed the Hum to emerge. In a loud environment like New York City, it?s far too difficult to hear the Hum, since it tends to just blend in with the din and chaos of everything else. The Hum, you could say, is not so much a sound but what?s left over, the noise you hear once all the other noises have been taken away.
Further confusing matters is the fact that some reports of the Hum have been definitively traced to specific sources and corrected. The Hum was heard in Sausalito, California, in the mid-1980s, but was eventually found to be the result of the mating sounds of a fish called the plainfin midshipman, whose call could penetrate the steel hulls of the houseboats in the marina. The Windsor Hum was investigated by the Canadian government and ultimately traced to factories on Zug Island, across the Detroit River in Michigan. After an extensive study of the Hum in Kokomo, Indiana, researchers determined that it was caused by two nearby manufacturing plants whose production facilities were emitting specific low frequencies.
The Hum soon stopped for some people in Kokomo?but not for everyone. Even in cases where there?s a likely culprit, it?s difficult to prove for sure. Dr. Colin Novak, one of the lead researchers of the Windsor Hum, concluded his report in May 2014, but in a CBC article that year he was quoted saying that while there was a high probability the cause was the Zug Island factories, ?Unfortunately, we weren?t able to find that smoking gun.? Without a longer study and more cooperation from U.S. authorities, researchers couldn?t definitively identify the source. ?It?s like chasing a ghost,? Novak said.
?I love science. I love mysteries. I love figuring things out,? said Glen MacPherson, the high school teacher and founder of the World Hum Map and Database Project, a site that has, since 2012, gathered and mapped reports of the Hum worldwide, including its location, intensity, and relevant biographical facts on the individual reporting it. MacPherson lives in Gibsons, British Columbia, a tiny town on the far west side of an inlet called Howe Sound. To get there you hook up with the Trans-Canada Highway and take it west until it runs out of road at a place called Horseshoe Bay, and from there a ferry carries you across the sound.
The air in Gibsons is lucid and still; you can hear the call of birds echoing across that pure stillness. Even the ferry and its cargo seem deferential to the silence of the water and its sparsely inhabited islands. The humble city of Vancouver, 30 miles away, seems a noisy urban nightmare.
We were sitting in the conference room of the Gibsons & District Public Library on a Saturday afternoon. It was quiet inside; any kids who could get away with it were out soaking up one of the last good weekends of the season. As I listened to MacPherson?s story of a mysterious noise, I couldn?t help but notice a sign tacked to the wall behind him, written in the big, gentle hand of a kindergarten teacher: ?Be kind, be safe, be listening.?
So I listened. MacPherson?s Hum story, at least initially, was fairly typical: In 2012, he was living in Sechelt, just a few miles from Gibsons, when he began hearing at night the droning of what he assumed were seaplanes taking off and landing. ?I couldn?t tell if it was a week or two or a month,? he recalled, ?but it became quite obvious at one point that this sound was not being caused by planes. So I waited until it started the following evening?it seemed to have a pretty regular onset at 10 to 10:30 p.m.?and I went outside, and the noise stopped.?
?My logic was that if it was louder inside and it stopped outside, then the source was inside: a refrigerator, a piece of machinery, whatever it was. I started walking through the house, and the sound was relatively consistent.? MacPherson began turning off various appliances, all to no avail. One oddity he did notice, however, was that the noise would stop if he turned his head sharply or exhaled, though it would instantly return. ?And then I ran out of ideas, and so I did what many people ultimately do: I cut the power to the house?and it got louder.?
Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don?t more of us hear it?
Though his experience with the Hum has not been as excruciating as some others (he describes himself as a Hum ?hearer? rather than ?sufferer?), MacPherson was drawn to the problem of this mysterious noise: ?Less than one month after beginning my informal inquiries, I did what essentially every single person who visits the Hum web site has done: You go to Google.? He found an article in The Journal of Scientific Exploration, by a geophysicist named David Deming, titled ?The Hum: An Anomalous Sound Heard Around the World.?
Deming, who has taught at the University of Oklahoma since 1992, was one of the first scientists to take the problem of the Hum seriously. (He also heard the Hum.) Crucially, Deming was able to distinguish the Hum from tinnitus. Tinnitus, usually a ringing in the ear, can take a number of forms, but while its intensity may wax and wane, it is more or less omnipresent, and those who suffer from it tend to hear it in any environment. The Hum, which is constant but only under certain circumstances (indoors, rural areas, etc.), defies a simple correlation with tinnitus. Additionally, Deming notes that if the Hum were related to tinnitus, one would expect a fairly normal geographic distribution rather than clusters in small towns.
Deming believed that the Hum wasn?t an acoustic sound, but possibly a low-frequency vibration that some people interpret as sound. The most likely culprit of the Hum was a Navy project known as Take Charge and Move Out, or TACAMO. Begun in the early 1960s, TACAMO is a network of aircraft that carry very low frequency (VLF) antennae to communicate with nuclear submarines. VLF waves, which require extremely long broadcast antennae and massive amounts of energy, can cover the globe and penetrate nearly any surface (they reach submarines a hundred feet below the surface). Deming proposed a simple experiment to test this hypothesis: Three boxes, each large enough to hold a human, one that blocked sound, one that blocked low-frequency waves and other types of electromagnetic radiation, and a control box that blocked neither.
Aside from Deming?s article, MacPherson realized, there was very little out there: The few user forums were rife with nonsense, heavy on anecdote, and light on fact. There were enough reports from far-flung places to suggest that the problem went beyond Taos and Bristol, but no one seemed to be doing anything systematic to gather all this information. As it happens, MacPherson had a background in technology. ?My degree major was in computer science programming, minors in mathematics and Russian language. I also worked briefly as a web professional in the early 2000s alongside my teaching.? In 2012, he used a simple Google Docs tool to create a list of self-reported experiences with the Hum. ?In combination of that and the Google form, and me knowing how to whip up web sites in a few hours, it began: the World Hum Map.?
MacPherson?s database allows users to input their experience with the Hum, including information on where and when it?s the loudest, if the hearer has tinnitus, if anything makes it stop, and so on. The World Hum Map soon came to the attention of Reddit, and submissions began pouring in; there are now over 5,000 data points. The first thing the site revealed was that the Hum wasn?t restricted to Taos and Bristol. It was everywhere.
A purported recording of the Taos Hum anonymously uploaded to YouTube.
It?s in Overland Park, Kansas, where it sounds like ?a metallic sound of something vibrating?; in Ankara, Turkey, where it?s a ?very deep and quiet rumble that sounds like a very distant diesel generator?; and in Hervey Bay, Australia, where it?s ?a pulsating continuous low background aircraft rumble that does not go away.? It seems to show up mostly in rural areas and in small cities: More people have heard it in Boise, Idaho, than in Washington, D.C. Reports dot the globe, from Iceland to the Philippines, but they?re concentrated in North America and Europe; MacPherson surmises this is only because the site is in English.
As I listened to MacPherson tell his story, the wind kept batting a branch against the windows, creating a noise just slight enough to hear but that gradually became maddening, as I found myself unable to tune it out. Hearing is complicated. It?s not just the physical sound waves that matter; it?s also what your brain does with that information. It?s important to remember that there?s so much we still don?t know about how hearing works. We know low-frequency waves can cause pain, nausea, and other deleterious effects on humans?indeed, the United States and other governments have long experimented with using sound and vibration as non-lethal weapons. Over a decade ago, the WaveBand Corporation introduced a device known as Mob Excess Deterrent Using Sound Audio (MEDUSA), which uses directed microwaves to create a strong, discomforting audio sensation in the victim?s head. More common are Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADS), which use ear-splitting focused noise and have been used on everyone from protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, to Somali pirates attacking cruise ships. Add to this the fact that since the early twentieth century we?ve been bombarding the atmosphere with all manner of frequencies and waves. Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don?t more of us hear it?
MacPherson liked his map and thought it was useful for creating a community for Hum sufferers. But he knew there was nothing scientific about it, nothing that would lead to a breakthrough in the Hum?s source. ?People tell me where they are and what they hear and I put a dot on a map,? he said. Then, a few months after he started hearing the Hum, he realized ?this crucial experiment that Deming had envisioned hadn?t been done yet.? The boxes. No one had thought to attempt Deming?s simple proposal of three boxes that could easily and definitively prove whether the Hum was an acoustic noise or a frequency, and no one had thought to try it. ?I couldn?t believe it.? So MacPherson crowdsourced a few hundred dollars to cover the material costs and built the first one, the one that would block VLF waves.
MacPherson?s Deming box is six feet by three feet by two feet, and made of black low-carbon steel. It looks like a cross between a coffin and the monolith from 2001. He keeps it in a woodshed not far from his house. ?Deming,? MacPherson said, ?suggested that the first box out of three?which is what this is?should be able to completely block VLF radio waves.? Deming?s solution was a box with walls made from inch-thick aluminum, which would have been cost-prohibitive, to say nothing of technically difficult. ?Then I went on with my research and discovered that mild steel, with a minimum thickness of 1.2 millimeters, would provide what they call, in the physics lingo, about ten skin depths. Each skin depth of mild steel attenuates the signal to, let?s see,??he mumbled a few figures, working out some math in his head??about 30 percent of what the original signal strength would be. Ten skin depths essentially provides 100 percent coverage.? If a Hum sufferer were to get in the box, and if the Hum was indeed caused by VLF waves, then the noise should stop once inside the box. This is the test that MacPherson was planning to do while I was there. His goal was to take it on the road, bringing it down the Pacific Coast to meet up with other Hum sufferers and test it.
The welds on the box were thick, running along the edges like long-healed scars; as I ran a finger along one of them, he said, ?The welding is crucial, because VLF radio waves have a peculiar habit of being able to penetrate, and find cracks, just like water.?
He pried open the hatch so I could peer inside. It looked claustrophobic, a pure black interior not long enough for an adult to lie in comfortably.
?So you?ll need some kind of oxygen source,? I asked, feeling a bit queasy at the thought of spending time locked in there.
?No need,? MacPherson answered. ?There?s plenty of air inside a box that size, enough for, I don?t know, four hours of breathing.? This was probably technically correct but not at all reassuring.
MacPherson propped a foot up on the edge of the box. ?If it were a different frequency than VLF,? he said, ?like something around microwave, or cell phone frequency, which some people suggest, then this would not have taken me off and on three years to build.? I asked why, and he said that those waves can easily be blocked by thin layers of foil. ?You know, the classic??
?The tin foil hat,? I finished, both of us laughing. That he?s able to joke about this suggests his even-keeled approach to this whole question, but the hint of fringe conspiracy theories always lurks just around the corner and makes actual progress on solving the Hum extraordinarily difficult.
An inexorable attraction to anomalies is one of the ways science moves forward.
Take, for instance, another prominent voice in the Hum community: Steve Kohlhase, a mechanical engineer living in Brookfield, Connecticut, who first started hearing the Hum in 2009. ?At one time it was very quiet around here,? Kohlhase told me over the phone. ?We moved up here from New Jersey in 1994, and there were two Algonquin pipelines by us??gas pipelines??and an Iroquois pipeline behind us. We bought the house realizing all that. But it was quiet, no issues at all. And during the 2000s, under Bush and all that?and I?m a Republican by the way?they decided they were going to start expanding. They put a couple of compressor stations behind us, and after they installed those, probably seven months later, I started sensing a low-frequency disturbing noise when I was in bed?the typical thing: One person hears it and the rest of the family doesn?t.? He wasn?t alone in hearing the noise, he said. ?The dog started acting up, and the coyotes started acting up: They started to walk up and down the street, leaving their habitat. ? The dog went on Prozac because he couldn?t handle it.?
Kohlhase believes the pipelines running through his neighborhood and throughout the country are producing the Hum. He claims many of his neighbors hear it too but are afraid to say anything for fear of driving down property values. Other Hum sufferers have connected the Hum to electromagnetic radiation from nearby power plants, cell phone towers, or ?smart? utility meters that broadcast their readings. Any facet of modern life that emits a signal or has moving parts has at one point or another been put forward as a potential cause of this unbearable noise, as though the Hum were something of a Rorschach blot of technological woe.
But from this set of information Kohlhase has extrapolated a conclusion more and more sweeping in scope. He believes that most?if not all?mass shootings of the past few decades can be traced to natural gas pipelines emitting low-frequency radiation. I asked Kohlhase about Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter. ?I don?t think he was crazy,? he said. ?I think he was basically sane given the conditions he was experiencing.? Nor does he think Alexis was alone. Using MacPherson?s maps of Hum reports, and his own research, Kohlhase claimed to have found a correlation between high numbers of Hum sufferers and mass shootings: ?[Alexis] was probably affected mentally by living in these Hum clusters, such as many of these other murderers?in Denver, Albuquerque, Tucson, out in California, even out here in Connecticut, at Newtown.? In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Kohlhase submitted material to the Connecticut State Police suggesting that a natural gas pipeline near Adam Lanza?s home may have been what drove him to kill 27 people.
This reading of recent gun tragedies is pretty disturbing in its desire to explain with one stroke the root cause of these violent episodes, neatly sidestepping the problem of mental health, easy access to high-capacity assault weapons, and many other factors. It also sidesteps the deep conflicts, ambiguous problems, and difficult solutions in favor of what you could call a magic bullet that resolves the problem once and for all. But in the absence of serious scientific inquiry, this is precisely the kind of logic that?s allowed to prevail.
Visualization of a Hum recording from Taos, New Mexico.
Perhaps this is the reason so many people have seized on MacPherson?s experiment: its elegant simplicity, its promise of silencing the crackpots. With one simple test, it seems, we?ll know once and for all whether the Hum is related to VLF waves. If this theory is correct, we?ll know right away: If someone can hear the Hum outside of the box but not inside it, there will be strong evidence that it?s a low-frequency issue (the box isn?t soundproof). But the fact that it?s such a simple experiment is also why it?s so frustrating that MacPherson hasn?t tried it yet.
?As it turns out,? MacPherson told me, standing next to his steel monolith, ?this unit, despite its very mundane and sepulchral appearance, has not been tested. Nobody has entered this yet, and I?m going to be the first person.?
When I asked him why he hasn?t gone in yet, MacPherson gave me a range of answers. ?For one,? he said, ?I don?t think this location will work. For many people the Hum is inaudible out of doors.? The woodshed MacPherson uses for the box is covered but not sealed, and has no door on it. He won?t bring it inside his own house, claiming it won?t fit inside the door. So he has to move it. ?In the big picture scientifically, this sounds ludicrous, but I need a trailer. The box looks too much like a coffin. I don?t want it seen out in public too much.?
But it?s not just that he doesn?t want to be seen driving it around; he doesn?t want to be seen testing it, either. ?It?ll need to be put in someone?s garage, because that will provide the blocking for the ambient sound, but it?ll also provide the privacy necessary.? When I threw out the possibility of just going ahead and renting him a U-Haul, he demurred, changing the topic back to the theoretical discussion. Having come this far, he seemed suddenly uncomfortable with what he had made.
Gibsons, after all, is a small town of only a few thousand people, and MacPherson has taught high school here for 26 years. Without exaggeration, it?s safe to say that most everyone who lives here or their children has gone through his classroom. Since he?s begun this project he?s become known locally as the Hum guy: When he goes grocery shopping, one of the teenage clerks will stand behind him out of sight and hum quietly. It?s the kind of joke MacPherson takes in stride. ?If I don?t show a sense of humor on this,? he said, ?it?s going to be hell.?
David Deming has more or less ended his involvement with the Hum; he?s no longer doing research on it, and he declined an interview on the topic (though he did answer a few brief questions via email). One wonders if this is because of people like Kohlhase, who Deming sees as the main problem standing in the way of understanding the Hum and other scientific anomalies. ?They are inexorably attracted to anomalies of all types, but their behavior is fundamentally irrational,? he wrote in a 2007 paper. ?On internet discussion forums, these people relentlessly drive out good posters and ruin everything they come into contact with. They need to be condemned swiftly and mercilessly.?
MacPherson is a bit more tolerant. ?Everybody gets a chance with me,? he said. An inexorable attraction to anomalies is one of the ways science moves forward. William R. Corliss, the controversial physicist who spent years collecting records of scientific oddities from singing sands to the Nazca Lines, once wrote of such research that, ?while not science per se,? it nonetheless ?has the potential to destabilize paradigms and accelerate scientific change. Anomalies reveal nature as it really is: complex, chaotic, possibly even unplumbable.?
When Wolfgang Pauli first proposed the existence of neutrino particles in 1930, he almost immediately regretted it, referring to them as a ?desperate remedy? to explain anomalous readings of radioactive decay. The work that ultimately proved their existence led to a Nobel Prize in 1995, but there were still problems, and neutrinos continued to confront scientists with unexplained readings, unpredictable data, and other anomalies that confound known models. Ultimately the so-called solar neutrino problem (referring to the fact that only a third of expected neutrinos emitted from the sun are recorded as expected) was solved in 1998, leading to another Nobel in 2015 for neutrino research.
There are many in the Hum community who see MacPherson?s box as an equally important scientific feat. ?Regardless of the ultimate findings,? a poster commented on MacPherson?s site, ?you have moved the investigation on the Hum forward in an unparalleled manner.? Having come this far, on the verge of finally testing the VLF theory, excitement among the Hum community is pretty high. ?Thank you,? another commenter wrote, ?for the inspiring initiative which may eventually bring back a life to many wandering spirits.?
But having finally completed the box, MacPherson suddenly stopped. After weeks of telling me that he would conduct his experiment in my presence, he made it clear that it would not happen. Partly, he said, this had to do with the school year starting up again and the increasing demands of his main job and his other hobbies. A few weeks later, when MacPherson still hadn?t tested it, a poster on MacPherson?s web site snarled at him. ?Go in already,? he wrote. ?What is it with this cliff-hanger shit??
There was only so long I could stare at a metal box, particularly once MacPherson made it clear that neither of us were going inside it. We?d talked about going out to one of the places where MacPherson has heard the Hum the loudest, but instead he took me to his high school. He was eager to show me the garden he?d set up in the back of his classroom, where his students were growing tomatoes and various herbs. He talked about his other hobbies?surfing, cooking, playing bass guitar. He seemed far more enthusiastic about what his students are doing, and at times seemed quite over the Hum and his role in it.
I?d come to Gibsons to see the thing that was finally going to solve the problem of the Hum, made by the one man best positioned to make that happen. But MacPherson has already begun downplaying the impact of the box he?s built. It doesn?t have much practical use, after all: You can?t live in an airtight steel box all your life. Several people have written about the possibility of living in metal shipping containers as a means to escape the Hum, but since VLF waves can permeate most surfaces, one would have to flawlessly seal the container to get any kind of permanent relief. If it is VLF, in other words, it is inescapable, and MacPherson will at best only be able to verify that the Hum is everywhere.
Rather than hoping to end the problem once and for all, MacPherson hopes that his experiment?if he ever conducts it?will serve as a catalyst for more serious investigation. ?I expect at some point I?ll have this taken away from me by a big university lab,? he said. He believes that the entire problem could be solved with a good lab and a small amount of funding.
?The problem is that no one?s paying for this, no one has picked this up,? he said. ?It?s me and a few people sending me PayPal accounts through the mail that?s essentially made a big metal box sitting in a woodshed.?