In the Key of B Flat

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

The World Cup is long over, so you’d think the “buzz” on vuvuzelas would have died down by now. However, as any of you who attended last Friday’s 2010 History Mystery Challenge can attest, the noisemakers are alive and well in Fort Collins.

The Fort Collins De-Coders celebrate their History Mystery win

We’ve already told you about the history behind vuvuzelas, but the instrument is linked to some interesting science stories that might surprise you.

During the World Cup, many people compared the sound of the vuvuzelas coming through their television screens to a swarm of bees. Well, that’s not far off. Most vuvuzelas buzz in the key of B Flat, and do you know who else can hit that range? Bees.

And bees aren’t the only animals connected to B Flat. In the 1940s, the New York Philharmonic performed a concert at the American Museum of Natural History. During rehearsals, a musician played a note that got Oscar, the museum’s resident alligator, to begin bellowing. A quick test of instruments and notes determined that it was B Flat, played on any instrument, that got Oscar’s attention. This experiment has been repeated, and when it comes to alligators, B Flat causes a commotion every time. Good thing alligators aren’t native to South Africa, or there would have been even more commotion during the World Cup.

But B Flat doesn’t just pop up in surprising places on Earth. This note is universal – literally.

The next time you have a chance to look up at the Milky Way, the galaxy in which our Solar System is located, try to imagine its rotation. The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy, looking a lot like a pinwheel, and it rotates like one, too. This compilation of stars, planets, gas and dust rotates at approximately 270 kilometers per second (168 miles/second), which translates to 970,000 kilometers/hr ( 600,000 miles per hour). And the note that impressive rotational speed translates to? B Flat.

And if the Milky Way’s connection to B Flat isn’t enough, let’s add a black hole. In 2003, astronomers at NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory discovered sound waves coming from a black hole in the Perseus cluster of galaxies (which you’ll remember from our post on the Perseid Meteor Shower). The sound waves coming from the black hole? You guessed it: B Flat. However, this isn’t a B Flat the human ear can detect; it’s 57 octaves below middle C and at a frequency a million billion times lower than we can detect.

Puts a couple vuvuzelas into perspective, doesn’t it?

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