The Exploratorium's Sound Uncovered: A science museum in your hand (for free)

This review also appears on Download the Universe, a group blog reviewing the best (and worst, and just "meh") in science-related ebooks and apps.

When I go to science museums, I like to press the buttons. I'm convinced this is a special joy that you just do not grow out of. Hit the button. See something cool happen. Feel the little reward centers of your brain dance the watusi.

But, as a curmudgeonly grown-up, I also often feel like there is something missing from this experience. There have definitely been times when I've had my button-pushing fun and gotten a few yards away from the exhibit before I've had to stop and think, "Wait, did I just learn anything?"

Science museums are chaotic. They're loud. They're usually full of small children. Your brain is pulled in multiple directions by sights, sounds, and the knowledge that there are about 15 people behind you, all waiting for their turn to press the button, too. In fact, research has shown that adults often avoid science museums (and assume those places aren't "for them") precisely because of those factors. Sound Uncovered is an interactive ebook published by The Exploratorium, the granddaddy of modern science museums. Really more of an app, it's a series of 12 modules that allow you to play with auditory illusions and unfamiliar sounds as you learn about how the human brain interprets what it hears, and how those ear-brain interactions are used for everything from selling cars to making music.

It's part of a series that also includes Color Uncovered. The app is basically a portable Exploratorium. It would be very simple to convert everything in here (from games to text) into a meatspace exhibit. And that's a good thing. There are some big benefits to having access to your own, private museum.
A) You get to press the buttons as many times as you want.
B) You actually have the time and the headspace necessary to explore the text and learn the things the button-pressing is supposed to teach you.

For instance, one module features a psuedo vintage tape deck that allows you to record yourself speaking, and then play the recording both normally, and in reverse. You're particularly encouraged to try recording palindromes—words and phrases that are spelled the same backwards and forwards. You might think that palindromes would also sound the same backwards and forwards, but you'd be wrong. The phrase "too bad I hid a boot", for instance, sounds more like garbled Japanese when it's played backwards.

Having this all to yourself on an iPad means that you can spend a lot of time being silly (examples of recordings made by this reviewer include palindromes in different accents, "Hail Satan", and multiple swear words) while easily jumping back and forth between the interactive diversion and the explanations of how it works and how it fits into modern society. I can even imagine kids playing with the toy part of this for a while before finally stumbling upon the embedded text and having their games suddenly illuminated with meaning. That's pretty cool. In a museum setting, I've watched plenty of kids muck around with the button pressing and then run off before they ever have a chance to learn that phonemes are distinct units of sound or that backward speech doesn't just reverse the order of the phonemes, but reverses the phonemes themselves. Sound doesn't have palindromes.

The other benefit here is that Sound Uncovered eliminates the need for the role of Boring Adult — the person charged with the futile task of reading the explanatory text out loud to a gaggle of button-pressing children who really do not care about that right now. In doing so, it frees adults to actually have fun and learn something, too. If you don't have to be the education enforcer, and can trust that your kids will discover the explanations as they play with the app over time, then you're able to actually engage in play yourself —both with your kids and without them. The portable museum is a place for kids, and it's a place for adults, too.

That said, I think an adult on their own would probably burn through this pretty quickly. I got most of what I'm going to get out of it on a three-hour plane flight. But it's also free, so it's not like you're out a lot of money for a small amount of information. In general, I'd say Sound Uncovered is a good example of how the digital format can be used to improve science communication in ways that aren't easily possible in the real world.

Sound Uncovered and Color Uncovered


  1. I found the Exploratorium really dull when I was there last. I don’t know, is it just me? I spent about five minutes building an icosahedron and playing with a bit of rope on a motor and then wandering around trying to find something else remotely interesting to do. 

  2. “Feel the little reward centers of your brain dance the watusi”  – hereby nominated for ‘most fun phrase of this year (so far)’ !

    In fact, if I knew how to get a meme started, I’d say this should supplant the “just look at it” meme

  3. i know that Dendrimers (PAMAM,CYD) have good and promising applications for the heavy metal-containing wastewater treatment. For example, Cu2+ in wastewater can be well absorbed through the terminal amino and tertiary amino of PAMAM dendrimer, so that effective treatment of heavy metal wastewater is realized. The absorption rate of Cu2+ can reach 100% when the pH of the wastewater is 9. is that some Practical industrial applications?

  4. Aw, requires iOS6. Welp, this might be the thing that pushes me over the edge to finally update. Goodbye my pretty Google maps. 

  5. Funny that you mention button-pushing in science museums and a segue to the Exploratorium. For 8 years in the 1980s I taught middle school science at a K-12 school in Center City Philadelphia, a short walk from the Franklin Institute. I took kids there on field trips a few times (a field trip that didn’t involve a bus!), but eventually stopped when I realized that the exhibits only engaged the kids at the level of pushing buttons; they rarely paused to find out what it was that happened when the did so. Fast forward a couple of years; I left teaching and took an unrelated job, and early on got to go on a business trip (to a convention in Santa Clara, CA). I went a day early so I could spend at least 24 hours in San Francisco, and while there went to the Exploratorium. What I saw there made me rethink the whole idea of a science museum: kids (and adults) didn’t race from exhibit to exhibit madly pressing buttons; they stayed at an exhibit and were truly engaged by it. I didn’t have a way to find out if the difference resulted from better designed exhibits or self-selected more curious kids (who hadn’t been dragged there by their science teacher), but I’ve thought ever since that there are many wrong ways (and many right ways) to design exhibits that draw people in instead of merely prompting them to push a button. If I had an iPad, I’d definitely check out this app.

    1. The Boston Museum of Science started as the Boston Museum of Natural History in 1830.

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