Visualizing Sound with the Ruben’s Tube

by Myya McGregory

Is it possible to visualize sound? The Rubens’ Tube invented in 1905 by Heinrich Ruben, a German physicist, might be able to help us answer this question.

Students of physics might be very familiar with this contraption, but for those that are not, it might be helpful to think of a gas grill burner. Just like a gas grill burner, a Rubens’ tube is just a tube with holes in it attached to gas tank. The only difference is the other side is attached to the speaker of a frequency generator.

The idea of being able to see sound is predicated on sound traveling in waves. Humans can only hear frequencies from approximately 12 hz to 20 hz. In addition to hearing the sounds, we can also feel the vibrations from these sounds.

Rubens’s Tube by Flickr member, Pete

The height of the flame is determined by Bernoulli’s Principle since pressure is equal throughout the tube. When sound waves travel through the tube combining with the pressure from the gas, flames peak at the antinodes of the sine wave. When the gas pressure is lowered the amplitude of the flames will be higher at the nodes.  Mythbusters explains it well.

Now that we have established that sound waves can be visualized, let’s have some fun with it!

Jared Ficklin takes the concept one step further in his most recent TED talk. He brings out a flame table and digital renderings to examine eigenmodes, the vibrational modes of oscillating systems. This way he can analyze the effects of more than one frequency and show the complexity of sound. He even created a rendering of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

How do you visualize sound? Have you ever seen a sound wave? Share your stories below!

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