Seeing the Hear

On June 3, 1899, chemist and experimental physicist Georg von Békésy was born in Hungary. Exploring how best to improve a telephone earpiece, he studied the ear as the prime component for refining a telephone transmission system. Intrigued by ears, Békésy compared and studied mammalian ears from mouse to elephant.

At Harvard’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, he became the first to record the physical events that occur within this fragile mini-system as it is stimulated by sound. Békésy managed a micro-dissection without damaging the organ and, employing high magnification stroboscopic microscopy, he illustrated how the ear’s basilar membrane measured amplitudes in thousandths of a millimeter, moving like a surface wave when stimulated by sound. Further, Békésy demonstrated that, depending upon the frequency of the sound, the traveling wave motion along the membrane achieved maximum amplitude in different locations.

He became a Nobel laureate in medicine. Békésy’s discoveries continue to inspire and involve medical doctors and physical scientists in the mechanics and perceptions of sound.

Here is a graphic simulation of the basilar membrane processing a travelling wave of low, medium, and high sounds, separately, then together. Produced for Dr. A. James Hudspeth, F. M. Kirby Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience at The Rockefeller University, © 1997 Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Cochlear wave animation


B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage

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