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‘The Unheard Symphony of the Planet’

surfacing

‘The Unheard Symphony of the Planet’

Using a tiny device called a Raspberry Shake, people around the world are tuning in to the earth’s vibrations.

By Madeleine Morley

Photographs by Peter Fisher

Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times

Jan. 3, 2023

Everything felt still while Marc Cesaire, a high school earth science teacher, watched a livestream of the Rolling Loud hip-hop festival at Citi Field from his apartment a few miles away in Queens, N.Y.

It was 4:55 p.m. on October 30, 2021, and the rapper Fivio Foreign was playing to an audience of thousands. As the set neared its end, Cesaire, 43, noticed the crowd jumping with more and more intensity, so he pulled up a second live feed, this one streaming data from a small, inexpensive seismograph called a Raspberry Shake, which he’d just installed in his classroom at the nearby Civic Leadership Academy.

“The seismograph actually seemed to pick up the crowd jumping up and down from 1.3 miles away,” Cesaire said. “You couldn’t feel it, but Queens was vibrating to the beat.”

Ground motion from the Long Island Rail Road at 21:40:45 U.T.C., followed by the Rolling Loud festival, starting between 21:41:00 and 21:41:15 U.T.C. (Oct. 29, 2021).Credit…Marc Cesaire

The Raspberry Shake — a small device that combines a cheap computer called a Raspberry Pi with a monitor that measures minuscule ground movements — has, since 2016, helped to make seismology more accessible to the public. Raspberry Shakes are less sophisticated than professional seismographs but a fraction of the cost, and around 1,600 of the devices are scattered around the planet, livestreaming their open access data online to form the largest, real-time seismic network in the world. The network of “Shakers,” as the community likes to call itself, is made up of hobbyists, professionals and educators, whose instruments pick up the seismic waves of earthquakes as well as the daily hum of their nearby surroundings.

Three Shakers: Marc Cesaire, a high school earth science teacher in Queens, N.Y.; Amy Gilligan, a geologist in Aberdeen, Scotland; and Ben Orchard, a software developer in Temecula, Calif.

“You might expect to see a flat line on the seismogram, but motion is always there,” said Steve Caron, 54, a business systems analyst and citizen scientist who streams his device’s live data on YouTube from Chino Hills, Calif. The seismogram Caron refers to is a recording of the ground’s movements, via a graph that shows time on its horizontal axis, and ground displacement on its vertical axis, usually measured in nanometers. “Everything is moving all the time,” he added, “but only scientists and hobbyists like me ever really notice it.”

In New York, Cesaire frequently checks on his Raspberry Shake’s data in the morning or during his lunch breaks. “You start to become aware of how structured and scheduled city life is,” he said. “You see when the Long Island Rail Road passes by, and construction begins, when the HVAC and computers turn on in school.”

Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times
Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times

Typically, scientists bury seismographs in vaults deep underground, a practice meant to drown out the vibrations created by people — what they call “cultural noise” — in order to get a clearer reading of the activity of the earth itself. But for many Shakers, installing cheaper seismographs at home was proof that the distinctive patterns created by everyday activities — traditionally considered undesirable to capture — could be fascinating in their own right.

“The washing machine has nice signals,” said Amy Gilligan, 34, a geologist in Aberdeen, Scotland. Leda Sánchez Bettucc, 55, a geologist in Montevideo, Uruguay, plays a game with her daughter to guess whether vibrations are from the blender, the vacuum cleaner or her son practicing the violin.

On Twitter, Shakers share seismograms with one another of thunderclaps, power lifting workouts, neighborhood construction and other curious recordings, using the hashtag #WhatsTheWiggle. Caron, who sometimes sees the footsteps of a family of badgers appear in his data, said there were still many mysteries out there. You have to play detective: “There’s some wavy lines I see every night, but I have no idea what they are. What’s oscillating like that at 3 a.m.?”

Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times
Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times

While cultural noise continually springs up and down on Shaker livestreams, ultimately it’s the distinctive vertical spike of an earthquake that Shakers are seeking, and the data collected by them frequently aids the work of scientists as well. As Wendy Bohon, 45, a geologist and the communications strategist for the Earth Science Division of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, explained, “with really significant earthquakes, the waves are so big that they can go around the earth several times.” Seismographs, both professional and DIY, can capture those waves as they travel thousands of miles across the surface and through the interior of the planet.

In the moments after a larger quake, Shakers share screenshots of data from their devices, creating a larger picture of how a wave traveled through the earth to reach each of them. Digital connectivity revealing geological connectivity, Caron observed.

For Takaaki Hattori, 34, a Shaker and nature guide in Okinawa, Japan, “when there is a big earthquake in the distance and I see the vibrations captured at home, I realize that we all live on a single planet called Earth.”

Three Raspberry Shakes: on the floor of a classroom in Queens, N.Y., buried in a trash can in Temecula, Calif., and in a living room corner in Aberdeen, Scotland.

In 2020, live data provided by both Shakers and professionals revealed that Covid lockdown measures worldwide had reduced the seismic noise of the planet by up to 50 percent. “I noticed it straight away,” said Ben Orchard, 55, a software developer in Temecula, Calif. Looking at his Raspberry Shake’s data, “every day was a weekend,” as cultural noise like commuting cars and school buses faded from Southern California.

“The world is already noisy — there’s winds, trees, animals, and waves crashing,” Bohon, the geologist, said. “And humans amplify that noise. I think of us as busy little ants crawling around on the surface. For a while, we all just sort of went to sleep, and the world persisted without us.”

After observing the planet’s seismic hush, Clemens Finkelstein, 33, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, placed a Raspberry Shake inside the CIVA museum in Brussels for its “Sick Architecture exhibition this past summer. “I wanted to show people coming into the space the vibrational impact they have on their surroundings,” Finkelstein said. Some visitors took the liberty to stamp their feet, actively engaging with the sensor.

Finkelstein’s experience of “dark spaces, techno music, and feeling something touch your innards” at nightclubs in Berlin, his hometown, initially drew him to studying the “all present, all touching” phenomenon of vibration, he said.

Orchard calls it “the unheard symphony of the planet.” When he moved with his wife and two children from Victoria, Australia to Southern California in 2008 — a “difficult and stressful” relocation — he installed a Raspberry Shake in his backyard to help reassure everyone after experiencing their new home’s fault activity for the first time. “It may seem like a big earthquake, but is it really? Well, look at the data,” he said.

Typical days in Victoria, Australia and …
… Temecula, Calif., interrupted by a 7.3-magnitude earthquake in Japan (Feb. 13, 2021).Credit…Ben Orchard

Back in the countryside of Victoria, across the Pacific Ocean and over 8,000 miles away, Orchard’s father followed the everyday “hum” of Temecula on his son’s livestream. “It connected him to us,” said Orchard, who sent his dad a Raspberry Shake for Father’s Day in 2017. Today, Orchard tracks the two streams of data side-by-side on his computer’s dashboard and an iPad next to the living room television, catching the cigar-shaped vibration of the grain train as it passes his father’s house in the morning, the sudden spikes of the surf crashing against Victoria’s cliffs when it’s stormy, or the blips of his father planting a fig tree in the garden. “Observing my dad’s tranquillity now connects me back home,” Orchard said.

When a magnitude 6.6 earthquake hit the remote and largely uninhabited Kermadec Islands near New Zealand in March, Orchard first saw it appear on his father’s seismograph in Victoria, and then, four minutes later, the quake arrived as a distinct burst of spikes on the Raspberry Shake monitor in his home. “Together, we can see how that base note that the planet just played is rippling through the earth, bouncing backwards and forwards between us as it plays out on a planetwide sound system.”

Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times

Surfacing is a column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.

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