Readers Respond to the July 2022 Issue

Readers Respond to the July 2022 Issue


I enjoyed “Voyagers to the Stars Tim Folger’s article about the history and status of the Voyager spacecraft. But I was puzzled when he mentioned that Voyager 1 and 2 will continue their journey and pass the nearest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, in 16,700 and 20,300 years, respectively.

NASA’s website says that the Voyagers won’t reach the halfway point to Proxima Centauri for 40,000 years and will travel two light-years to do so. If I use the speeds given at NASA’s Voyager mission status web page and assume 365. 25 days in a year, I get approximately 70,000 years for Voyager 1 and 78,000 years for Voyager 2 to travel four light-years.

JOHN CARY Sacramento, Calif.

The graphic in the box “The longest voyage” shows the Voyager spacecraft taking abrupt course deviations from their solar system plane. What caused these abrupt course changes? These course changes could have been caused by programmed flight changes, or an aspect of leaving the solar systems.


FOLGER REPLIES: To answer Cary: In 40,000 years the Voyagers will reach the outer edge of the Oort cloud, which is indeed about halfway to Proxima Centauri. Voyager 1 & 2 will have their closest encounter with the star in tens to thousands of years. They will be within 3.5 and 2.5 light-years, respectively. The sun is only 4.2 light years away from Proxima Centauri. The Voyager spacecraft and the sun are roughly the same distance from each other on a cosmic scale. But because the spacecraft are moving away from the sun, and Proxima Centauri is moving toward it, the Voyagers’ closest approach to our neighboring star will occur in 16,700 and 20,300 years.

Regarding Schonrock’s question: Voyager 1’s trajectory was designed to take it as close as possible to Saturn’s moon Titan. Voyager 1 eventually went “north” and was able to leave the ecliptic–the plane in the solar system. Voyager 2’s path was intended to take it beyond Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. This path took Voyager 2 “southward” of the ecliptic. These were not course corrections. The spacecraft were following the paths that would provide scientists with the best view of the outer planets.


In “Climate Miseducation,” Katie Worth reports on the shockingly disproportionate influence that the fossil-fuel industry has in setting science education standards in Texas, which consequently influence much of the textbook content throughout the U.S. As a science educator and school sustainability leader at an international school in Italy, I found the process in Texas of setting standards based on volunteer committees and decision-making by members of the State Board of Education extremely worrying. However, I don’t disagree with their call to include a cost-benefit analysis of energy resources. Although there is no doubt that this is an attempt at diverting attention from the need to address climate change, I see an opportunity.

Too often, human impact on the environment has been reduced to a “mea-culpa” description. There is little analysis of decision-making processes that can lead to further destruction of the environment. Students must be able to recognize and explain why poor environmental decisions are made and offer realistic and authentic alternatives. They will be able to examine the costs and benefits of fossil-fuel usage and who pays them. This will allow them to come to the same conclusion that any rational scientist would reach: While there are significant start-up costs, switching to renewable energy will save us from the significantly higher health, economic, and environmental costs associated to continuing on the current path. It won’t be the perfect solution.



Adam Fishbein’s fascinating article “How Birdshear Birdsong ” [May] prompted me to wonder about some issues I have encountered in my own research into popular music singing. It was not surprising to me that the “melodies,” birds sing, are more of a vehicle than a means to communicate their message through sonic “fine structures” [May]. This article by Adam Fishbein made me think about some issues I encounter in my own research on popular music singing. Fishbein defends this assertion as it is common in the field.

First of all, many music theorists and “traditional” musicologists have been open to the idea of limiting music’s conception to just notes. This is now being seriously questioned. Recent research has shown that listeners to popular music are sensitive to pitch (melody) but also react to aspects related to sound production such as timbre. Paralanguage, which is the sounds we make when speaking but are mistakenly thought to be just noises, is used in popular music singing to convey specific emotional content. Paralinguistic production can be facilitated by melodies, which are essential but not sufficient.

What about tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese? Studies have shown that Chinese speakers are better at identifying pitch by ear ,, or “perfect pitch.” There is also a large percentage of the population that can hear the shift. Each tonality has its own cultural signature for many musicians.

In the research that my colleagues and I have done, as well as many other musicologists around world, we have studied microvariations of timbre using the same tools (spectrograms and waveforms) that were used to create the fine structures in the article. These finer structures are of particular interest to music researchers because they are more sensitive to microvariations than to melodic structures and rhythm. We discovered that humans are able to perceive finer structures precisely because of a lack of research. This was due to a millennial-long Western ideology that favors the abstract over concrete.

I believe topics like birdsong are a great place for true interdisciplinarity. As musicologists of microvariations we are ready to contribute (at least, I am!).

SERGE LACASSE Full Professor of musicology, Laval University, Quebec

FISHBEIN REPLIES: Lacasse makes excellent points about the importance of microvariations in music and language. This topic is an excellent area for interdisciplinarity. Birdsong studies often try to draw parallels with syntax and other abstract parameters of music and language, but I believe humans and birds are more alike when it comes to extracting emotion from subtle changes in sound. Nevertheless, songbirds seem to be better than humans at hearing changes of fine structure. This could be due to fundamental anatomical differences in inner ear structure. Although melodic structures of music may differ between cultures, the ability for humans to hear melody is universal. Songbirds don’t hear melodies as well as we do.

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