Saturday Morning Science Experiment: Visualizing Sound Waves (Now With Fire!)

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

The Ruben's Tube: Proving that basic science concepts are more fun to learn when you add open flames since 1904. Want to build your own? There's an Instructables for that.

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user tom_adams, via CC.

Published 6:00 am Sat, Nov 14, 2009

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

20 Responses to “Saturday Morning Science Experiment: Visualizing Sound Waves (Now With Fire!)”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fight fire by fire-Metallica

  2. 13tales says:

    Man, and I always thought the original fiery winamp visualiser was just a flight of creative fancy… AWESOME :)

  3. tomadams says:

    I LOVE it when people use my pictures! Especially when they know they don’t need to ask permission!

  4. bklynchris says:

    I would leave my husband for this man…

  5. Anonymous says:

    Doesn’t he have the relation between pressure and flame size backwards? He says ‘the lower pressure allows more gas to escape into the atmosphere’, hence larger flames. Doesn’t it make more sense that higher pressure causes larger flames?

  6. Felton says:

    I love it! Here’s the first thing I’d play through it if I made one:

    “I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you…Fire!”

    Thanks, Maggie.

  7. Anonymous says:

    This is very nearly a music visualizer. Does anybody have any ideas for making a fast fourier transform out of propane and PVC? :-)

  8. Anonymous says:

    :O If physics had had a lil more fires at school, maybe i wouldn’t have slept through most of it :)
    Thanks for the awesome post Maggie! ^-^

  9. Anonymous says:

    #5, I was thinking the same thing.

  10. avraamov says:

    ‘Does anybody have any ideas for making a fast fourier transform out of propane and PVC? :-)’

    i think you’d have trouble getting the spectral breakdown acoustically (doing it digitally would be cheating). helmholz resonators wouldn’t give you enough pressure, and i’m guessing don’t give enough ‘Q’. i’d begin with manometric capsules with specifically tuned membranes.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Sweet! We did this in my AP Physics class during wave mechanics. So cool.

  12. benher says:

    That was so m.e.t.a.l !!!

  13. erikswedberg says:

    jared ficklin, you may now claim your “been boinged” merit badge:

  14. JoshP says:

    that is so money I want to hand you my debit card. :)

  15. strumpet windsock says:

    Very neat!

    About the only thing I can think of that tops that is a flame that actually make the sound waves:

  16. Mark Crummett says:

    This is how Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse invented the digital computer in Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon.”

  17. aquathink says:

    some kids did that for a project in my physics class. it was the best thing ever

  18. methystic says:

    This reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to post for a while. My mate’s teenage son built this device that emits electric sparks in relation to the music on his iPod []. Here is a picture of the device

  19. ttrentham says:

    Ha! Always amusing to follow a BoingBoing link and find someone you know. That’s Jared all right. Not his YouTube account though. Here’s the “official” version (

  20. woodycodeblue says:

    @ #5 and #9

    He was talking about the pressure outside the pipe, not inside. Hence the lower pressure “allowing” more gas and larger flames rather than, as you would have expected, higher pressure “pushing out” more gas and higher flames.

    He talks about the “standing wave,” which is created by a solid tone. The air pressure in the room is altered by the sound, and when it’s constant it settles into a relatively still pattern. High pressure spots suppress the gas coming out of the tube, and low pressure spots allow a relatively large amount of gas to come out.