Descartes Centre Colloquium with Leendert van der Miesen and Karin Bijsterveld


Delicate Ears and Daring Instruments: Capturing Sound in Early Modern and Contemporary Science

In this colloquium, Leendert van der Miesen and Karin Bijsterveld will both talk—although in individual papers—about practices of research in which tensions between understanding phenomena of sound by the ear and by instruments, or by listening and by measuring, played out. The practices examined are ages apart, with Van der Miesen focusing on the early modern era, and Bijsterveld on the long twentieth century. In both their narratives, however, the protagonists aimed at a form of knowledge on sound that surpassed the qualities of human earwitnesses.

Leendert van der Miesen

The Ear Needs Certain Rules’: Listening and Measuring in the Early Seventeenth-Century

In his Questions theologiques (Paris, 1634) the French music theorist and scholar Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) envisioned a science called ‘psophologie’ that would deal with all possible sounds and their origins. Although many of Mersenne’s investigations into sound originated in the field of music, ‘psophologie’ would be more encompassing and certain than physics. Sound was particularly suitable to learn about the properties of things, Mersenne argued, and through sound one could study objects, represent them and communicate about them to others. Although Mersenne’s description suggests a more significant role for the ear and empiricism, he was at the same time cautious of a key role for human ear and the senses in general. Listening experiences needed to be corrected and validated—‘the ear needs certain rules’, as he phrased it. This paper investigates how Mersenne went about studying the sounds of materials like wood, metal, and gut, and how the ear as transmitter of knowledge was problematised. Besides illuminating how Mersenne attributed a crucial role to numbers, I show how he extensively relied on collaborators and witnesses, coming to a form of collective empiricism. By paying attention to the theological rendering of sound, I demonstrate that Mersenne’s empirical approach and his belief in divine harmony are inseparable, as sound was a fundamental proof of the divinity of nature for the seventeenth-century scholar.

Karin Bijsterveld

Eavesdropping by the Eye: The Stasi, Sounding Objects and the History of Audio Intelligence

Between 1966 and 1989, the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) in the German Democratic Republic—infamous for its wide-ranging wiretapping and eavesdropping operations—collaborated with Humboldt University and the KGB on a research program that analysed the recorded sound of objects (such as camera shutters or cars) and voices in order to identify the artefacts and speakers on tape. Although the Stasi initiated the project with the aim to achieve such identification through spectrographic imaging, its employees could not do their identification exercises without drawing on listening expertise.

Office Erich Mielke, Head of Stasi (picture by Rein de Wilde)

By the end of the 1980s, the Stasi stepped up its computerization efforts, but an entirely automatic identification of objects and voices remained a Zukunftthemen, or future theme. This paper will explain why this was the case by drawing on archival research, the Stasi historiography, STS and sound studies. It will also show, however, how present-day commercial enterprises that promise to enhance security in public space by selling products that draw on artificial intelligence versions of spectrographic sound analysis (of screams, car alarms or breaking glass), cannot sidestep the Stasi’s legacy.

Short biographies

Leendert van der Miesen is a historian of early modern music and science, currently completing his dissertation on the French scholar Marin Mersenne at the Humboldt University of Berlin. From 2017 until 2020 he worked within the Collaborative Research Centre 980 in the research group ‘Epistemic Dissonances: Objects and Tools of Early Modern Acoustics’. From 2020 to 2021 he was a predoctoral fellow at the Max Planck institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Together with Viktoria Tkaczyk, he edited a special issue of the journal Sound Studies on the relationship between sound, materiality and knowledge entitled ‘Sonic Things: Knowledge Formation in Flux’.

Karin Bijsterveld is historian and full professor of Science, Technology and Modern Culture at Maastricht University. Her work focuses on themes at the intersection of Science and Technology Studies and Sound Studies. She is author of Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press 2008), co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (Oxford UP 2012, with Trevor Pinch), co-author of Sound and Safe: A History of Listening behind the Wheel (Oxford UP 2014, with Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs & Gijs Mom), and editor of a special issue on Auditory History for The Public Historian (2015). Among her other books are the open access monograph Sonic Skills: Listening for Knowledge in Science, Medicine and Engineering (Palgrave 2019) and the edited volume Uitgepakt/Unboxed (Verloren 2021) with popularizing entries on scientific instruments. She is currently working on a GPS-based version of her Dutch language audiobook Weg van Lawaai (Rubinstein 2019), the history of sound analysis at the Stasi (see Isis 2021), and an edited volume on Interdisciplinarity (with Aagje Swinnen). 

Start date and time
End date and time
Zalen van Zeven, Boothstraat 7, Utrecht (City Centre)
Entrance fee
Attendance is free but participation is only possible with valid QR code

Registration not necessary. Drinks afterwards.

This colloquium will also be streamed: