Significant Birds

Where: Science Gallery Dublin (+ see below)

When: 2013

Significant Birds demonstrates our extraordinary ability, first theorised by Hermann von Helmholtz in his groundbreaking On the Sensation of Tone in the 1860s, to comprehend speech by breaking down the complex vibrations received at the eardrum into their composite parts (harmonic partials) and reassembling them into meaningful words. This ability is demonstrated in a unique auditory Illusion. Using Helmholtz’s own words, decomposed into 12 sine wave signals, the installation allows the visitor to perceive speech that has no single physical location. 12 speakers in 12 bird cages, each chirping incomprehensibly like an electronic bird add up to a comprehensible text coming in and out of focus as the parts synchronise and drift apart. The voice is constructed in the brain of the perceiver but has no location in the space.

Significant Birds was originally created for the Science Gallery Dublin’s ILLUSION exhibition in 2013 and has reached over 1 million visitors as part of their touring programme in science centres as far afield as China, New Zealand and the United States (see below for a full list).

“Hence the ear does not distinguish the different forms of waves in themselves,
as the eye distinguishes the different vibrational curves. The ear must be said
rather to decompose every wave form into simpler elements according to a definite
law. It then receives a sensation from each of these simpler elements as from an
harmonious tone. By trained attention the ear is able to become conscious of each
of these simpler tones separately. And what the ear distinguishes as different
qualities of tone are only different combinations of these simpler sensations.”
Hermann von Helmholtz, 1863


full list of showings
Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 2021
Science Gallery, Venice 2020
Puke Ariki Museum, New Plymouth, New Zealand, 2018/19
Guangdong Science Center, Guangzhou, China, 2018
OMSI, Portland Oregon, 2017/18
Liberty Science Centre, New Jersey, 2017
Kunstkraftwerk, Leipzig, 2016
Petrosains Centre, Kuala Lumpur, 2015/16
Discovery Place, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2015
Reuben Fleet Science Centre, San Diego, 2015
The Science Gallery, Dublin, 2013