Strange But True: Voice capable of amazing range


Q: What are some of the true oddities of the human voice?

A: There are stroke victims who lose their ability to speak but who can still sing, says Jim Sullivan in "Discover" magazine. The theory is that singing is more dominated by the right hemisphere, speaking by the left (the National Center for Voice and Speech). "It's also why the singers Carly Simon, Mel Tillis and Bill Withers can ply their trade with no problems, but sometimes stutter in conversation."

Then there's the "screaming voice" of teaching assistant Jill Drake of Kent, England, who reached 129 dBA, according to "Guinness World Records." This is equivalent to noise levels at an AC/DC concert, and about 30 dB louder than a jackhammer. A conversational voice, by contrast, is about 60 decibels. Holding the Guinness record for widest musical range is singer Tim Storms, registering "a full 10 octaves — about twice that of Mariah Carey and more than three times the average singer's three octaves."

Finally, consider the historical castrati, male singers castrated before puberty, when boys' vocal cords typically lengthen and thicken. "Without the normal adult male testosterone levels, they remained natural trebles. Castrati were often highly paid, and in less enlightened times, some parents castrated their sons in hopes of cashing in."

Q: What's special about those bamboo-loving bears, the giant pandas (besides their size, of course)?

A: They act like couch potatoes, moving less than other bears, and when they do move, it's at something like 0.01 mph, says Meghan Rosen in "Science News" magazine. That's the average speed of a wild foraging panda. And at that rate, they're energy-saving superstars, burning only 38 percent as much energy as other similarly sized land mammals. Interestingly, "energy-draining organs such as the brain, liver and kidneys are relatively smaller in pandas than in other placental mammals. The findings help explain how they can survive on a low-cal, nutrient-poor diet of hard-to-digest bamboo."

Q: How might a quick electric zap to the brain put a stop to one's customary puking system?

A: Motion sickness was the puke prompt in question, as a team at Imperial College, London, put volunteers into a special chair designed to bring on puking almost without fail. To half the volunteers, the researchers attached a cap that applied an electric current to a brain area that deals especially with balance. As it turned out, those that wore the zapper lasted much longer in the chair than the others before feeling sick (from the journal "Neurology," as reported in "New Scientist" magazine).

Q: It's called a "compression sleeve" and it's quite high-tech. Who might be using one in their training?

A: Various professional cyclists, runners and triathletes, plus a U.S. basketball team and a British soccer team, for starters. This helps them gauge their workout intensity and gives them an edge over their competitors, says Emily Waltz in her article "The Quantified Olympian." Worn on the calf, the device measures exercise intensity signalled by lactic acid build-up in the bloodstream that can cause discomfort and force the athlete to slow down.

Its noninvasive sensor can be worn while working out, thus avoiding the multiple finger-prick blood samples and lab work otherwise required. Using near-infrared spectroscopy, the device reveals changes in blood oxygenation to estimate lactic-acid concentration, which can compromise an athlete's optimal performance.

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