An interview with George Michelsen Foy, author of Zero Decibels
Zero Decibels is subtitled "The Quest for Absolute Silence." How was this a quest, and why did you undertake it?
It all started when I realized my life was being taken over by noise. The first page of the book shows me on a subway platform, with my kids, suddenly finding the noise of different trains roaring into the station at the same time unbearable. This actually happened—of course, everything in the book actually happened. … From becoming hyper-aware of noise, I whiplashed over to wanting silence, not just quiet, but total silence. I started wondering what absolute silence might be, if it even existed. There was a lot of personal motivation here. Living in New York was noisy, working different jobs and raising kids and rushing around the city was noisy, there was a lot of informational noise too and it all drove me mildly crazy. I came to see silence as something that could heal my life.
So this was personal?
Yes and no. I realized that noise of different kinds is a symptom of the kind of inhumane, stressed existence many if not most people live in modern society. For example, one out of ten people in the U.S. hear so much loud noise in their lives that their hearing system is damaged as a result. Yet few if any are aware of it. I measured the average sound level of my life in New York and realized that every minute I was awake I was subjected to an average of over 50 decibels—enough noise to cause hypertension, and heart problems, that kind of thing. I think this is true of all of us, or most of us. There are serious physical effects from noise. If you add in other kinds of noise, informational, visual, and tactile even, from constant bombardment by publicity, entertainment, from high workloads, from hyper-flavored junk food even, you start to realize that our society is sick from noise overload of different kinds. And that overload, by not allowing us to "hear ourselves think," also prevents us from realizing the extent of the problem.
Did you ever find that healing silence?
You'll have to read the book to find out. But I will say this: by coming to understand sound, and silence, I came to appreciate how complex and beautiful is the world we hear through our ears every day. Even car sounds. If you really listen to the sound of a car passing, you realize it works on two or three frequencies. The engine, the gear train even, and the tires: low frequency, lower, high. Or at least, it can be beautiful, if the input is not too loud and constant to appreciate it. You have to be able to pitch sound at a level you can work with. …Doing this book I came to understand how important it is to be aware of sound, and also to learn how to control it. Silence or sound are not goals in themselves: what we have to strive for is, achieving the balance between sound and silence that allows us to live with greatest ease, in available peace.
You've worked primarily as a novelist. Did you find non-fiction easier or more difficult?
I love writing novels, but my first serious professional writing was as an investigative reporter. I was lucky enough to work for a weekly newspaper that was committed to publishing long investigative pieces, stuff that took months to research and write. The editor actually appreciated good writing … In a way, making up a world that is both true and fictional is more stressful, because you always have to strike the right balance, you have to make everything truer than true, in a sense, so the reader will believe. Being able to research the real world—in this case, sound, and silence, and people who know about them: the deaf, acoustic scientists, Trappist monks, oceanographers who measure aquatic sound levels; it was a relief, after novels. I love the process of researching, finding out how the world really works, and verifying that what I write is as objective as possible, and exact.
What was the most interesting research you carried out for the book?
I had a blast researching this book. And I saw so much interesting stuff; it's hard to pick one piece of research. In northern Ontario I went down a nickel mine, one and a half miles down, to an underground lab that is billed as "the quietest place in the universe." I visited a Trappist monastery, the monastery that started the tradition of silent monks in Europe—it was a beautiful and restful place. Researching sound, I went as close as I was allowed to a Space Shuttle lift-off. All of these places, all the people I interviewed, opened new perspectives on what sound is, and what silence might be.
Was there anywhere you wanted to go for research but weren't able to?
Outer space. Theoretically, if there's no air to carry them, no sound waves can exist. Of course once you research what space actually consists of, you realize that it's full of cosmic particles, which do carry sound waves, of a sort—in fact, star systems generate sound, the earth itself makes noise, though it's all so low frequency we can't hear it. Deep space should be silent, in auditory terms, for humans. The problem is, you'd have to take off your space suit to experience it. This might get a little tricky.