A quietly intriguing column. This week: QI keeps quiet
He can keep silence well. That man’s silence is wonderful to listen to.
The tower of silence
The power of silence
Silence is noisy; it’s just that humans can’t hear it. The same is true of stillness: it is not really still. Even a perfect vacuum has a constant movement of virtual particles coming in and out of existence in particle and antiparticle pairs that annihilate each other almost instantaneously. Science has discovered that the amount of energy in “empty” space (the space left after all the matter is removed) is up to 40 times that of the energy in matter. According to Richard Feynman, the great American physicist: “The energy in a single cubic metre of empty space is enough to boil all the oceans of the world.” Parsis believe the elements of earth and fire should not be polluted by human flesh, so they “bury” their dead in the sky, placing them on the roof of a Tower of Silence to be devoured by vultures. In 1897, Mark Twain described a Parsi funeral in Bombay: “It disseminates no corruption, no impurities of any sort, no disease-germs… from the Towers of Silence nothing proceeds which can carry harm to the outside world.” The Parsis in Bombay recently had to experiment with solar panels to decompose their dead because a drug used to treat domestic cattle has decimated India’s vultures. Only single male nightingales sing at night; once they find a partner they become silent. This silence continues until the female is about to lay her eggs, when the male sings again — most likely to maintain his hold over his mate and keep rival songsters as bay. As soon as the eggs hatch, the melodious singing ceases and both parents feed the chicks, communicating only through harsh, shrill calls. Nasa has developed a system of reading unspoken words, by In 2002, Mike Batt, most famous for his music for The Wombles (below), settled out of court with the estate of John Cage, the American avant-garde composer. He was sued for including a track called AMinute’s Silence on his 2001 album, Classical Graffiti. Cage “composed” his famous silent piece 4’33’’ in 1952 and, although Batt’s homage was “performed” by a clarinet, rather than the original piano, he recklessly co-credited his piece to Mike Batt/Cage.
Cage’s 4’33’’ caused a riot of abuse when it was first performed in Woodstock, New York. A pianist, with blank score and stopwatch, signalled the start of the four movements by closing the piano’s lid and using the watch to “play” for the correct time. It had been inspired by Cage’s visit to an anechoic chamber. “I literally expected to hear nothing,” he said. Instead, he heard his nervous system and his blood circulating. This changed his whole approach to composition. “Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot,” he wrote. “One need not fear for the future of music.”
Strictly Come Duncing, QI’s new interactive DVD game, is released by Warner Music Entertainment at £17.99. To order The QI Annual, edited by John Lloyd (Faber & Faber), for £11.99 plus £1.25 p&p, call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112, or see books.telegraph. co.uk. analysing the electrical nerve commands to the throat. People often silently talk to themselves: the signals are sent to the vocal chords, but not physically spoken. This “subvocal speech” may one day be able to be used for “silent” mobile phone calls and voiceless communication in very noisy places, between firemen in a burning building, say, or underwater between divers. Charles Jorgensen, leader of the Nasa research team, got the idea from his annoyance at people jabbering into their mobiles at lunch.
In Bali, people remain quiet when eating: they like to savour their food in peace. The Balinese also celebrate New Year in silence. The festival of Nyepi is a day for silence and meditation. No fires are lit or lights switched on, no work is done and the international airport is closed.
The sound of silence
Next week: QI catches spring fever
Liffs will return next week.