Degrees of Silence

Listen carefully. Do you hear that?

“What am I trying to hear?” you might ask.


In life, there is constant noise. At home, there is the the hum of the refrigerator, furnace or air conditioner, the faint sounds of traffic outside and a dozen other sources of background noise. At my desk at work, I hear muffled voices of people in the hall, computer printers printing and the clicking of keyboards as people type. Noise is so pervasive that often I don’t notice it anymore.

Some folks might define “silence” as the lack of all sounds, using the word as an absolute term. I‘m tempted to conclude that silence exists in degrees, and the degree of silence that we experience depends on our ability to ignore background noise. For example, many years ago when I worked in the laboratory, I experienced the constant low-level whirring of air-handling equipment, centrifuges and fume hoods on a daily basis. However, as long as no one had the radio blaring or the centrifuge improperly balanced, things were quiet… or so I thought, until we experienced a power outage and all lab equipment and air-handling systems were stilled. The silence was eerie. All of the noise that I had been filtering out unconsciously was gone. This was a new level of silence.

Recently, I had the opportunity to experience complete and utter silence while visiting a remote area in northern Wisconsin, at least ten miles from the nearest paved road. It was so quiet that I could hear my own pulse, and when a light rain started to fall, each drop hitting the leaf-covered ground sounded as loud as popcorn popping. I was reminded that what we often call silence is not. In today’s modern world, it seems we rarely experience true silence.

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

One thoughtful comment

  1. I’ve had the exact same experience with a power outage in a lab. Before the emergency generators kicked in, it was eerie. We all stopped what we were doing to listen to the silence.

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