Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Little Resonance, Please

The picture to the left is not a Christmas ornament. No, I am not celebrating “Christmas in July.” And yes, I promise this post will have something—no matter how tangential it may seem—to do with genealogy.

My question: Have you ever wondered how those ancient Greeks could perform their now-centuries-famous dramas without microphones, without (technically) even megaphones? How did their audiences hear every word—or at least enough of the script to inspire them to persuade their ancient next-door neighbors that this was the hottest show in town?

Alas, none of us were there, so we can’t know for certain, but there have been many theories. Some experts maintain that it was the masks that the actors wore that did the trick (the reason why I hedged my comment on megaphones). Some theorize that it was on account of the seating arrangement, or the way the wind blew, or the super-human prowess of those ancient pebble-chewing enunciators. A more recent team of scientists came up with the premise that it was the etchings on the seats that made the difference.

I’m convinced that the one thing that did get people listening was something entirely different than all those conjectures. What allowed the acoustics to deliver those ancient lines was a device very similar to what, today, we call a Helmholtz Resonator.

The idea behind a resonator—which, admittedly, is much too complex a physics concept for me to understand fully, much less explain adequately—is that a cavity enables vibrations to be captured and re-delivered in much the same manner as when we take an empty soda bottle and blow across the top of it to make a sound. The shape of the cavity assists mere air around us to become the midwife, if you can call it that, which delivers those pearly tones of the orators up to our listening ears.

So, design a container that allows enough movement to promote vibrations, situate it carefully to augment the initiating sound, and voila! You have provided a way to amplify your message.

While Hermann von Helmholtz developed his resonator in the 1850s, he most certainly honed his observations from physics first applied in those ancient Greek theaters. From those times onward, the secrets of acoustics found their application in settings both secular and sacred, as basilicas and cathedrals adopted the technology. Today, that same concept of resonance finds itself, well, resonating, as scientists take the basic premise and see other possibilities.

Resonance is not only for scientists, though. There are others giving birth to new ideas, focusing vibrations to suit new purposes. A thought occurs to many all at once—a meme—which each individual, separate and apart from the others, develops as an original creation. Or, a thought takes shape in serial fashion, passed along from person to person, as it grows from germ to bud to full fruit.

As in other realms, resonance has its place in genealogy, too. I watch it happen here on this blog. I do some research, think I’ve hit upon an original theme—and then bump into someone else who had that same brilliant idea. A meme grows in this branch of the tree in Brooklyn, too.

Sometimes, though, I hope to provide something—a thought, an idea, a bit of encouragement—that someone else can take and run with. It is in those moments of (hopefully) clarity that writing can be so rewarding.

I see a problem, write about it, mention it to others, and watch the response grow. When I posted my Click-Through article, it seemed to be an idea that not only helped some people, but was worth a mention to others. It rose in my article rankings to third-highest readership ever, trailing only my blog-launching post on Mother’s Day and its sequel the next day. The circle widened from those who read me to those who read the people who read me. It resonated. That brings the thought expressed in the article one step closer to being birthed in action.

That kind of response, of course, becomes Encouragement Fodder for the writer’s soul. That resonance, though, comes with both a bright side and a dark side. It becomes the meme we don’t see, as we become blindsided by believing that our creativity and originality were owing solely to our own effort. It in no way matches the resonance that comes from sharing the path of step-by-step, community-based growth.

While I was glad to see the resonance indicators from my Click-Through post, I was humbled and happy to see the results of joining a wonderful and fast-growing community of genealogy bloggers known as Geneabloggers. Somehow, it was clear to me that my now-soaring numbers were not, in this case, for anything that I had developed, but owing to the mutual support of a community of researchers with widely divergent, yet somehow similar, goals. The resonance, in this case, is the benefit of numerous online kindred spirits linked, not splat-like in the manner of many individual memes, but in the sequential sharing of those genealogical “midwives” who’ve perfected the art of passing good things along.

Thinking about Greek Theater in our now-saturated culture, satiated with every aspect of entertainment and self-absorption, seems somewhat out of place. Of what use is the midwife to those now trying to give birth to something new? The airwaves are overloaded with information. It seems there is no room left for resonance to do its magical—no, scientifically designed—work. “MEGO” (My Eyes Glaze Over) becomes the immediate response to discussions—even to answers sought—spanning a moment longer than the sound bite. We need to recreate room to breathe—room for resonance.

So, what does this have to do with genealogy, you ask? In a cultural climate like ours, how do we hope to entice others to take an interest in their personal family history? The hope I had in starting this blog, for instance, was to find new ways to get people to think about their roots and how much they owe to the richness of their heritage. But just coming out and saying so is insisting on a hearing. Instead, by well-chosen questions to pique interest, by salting the oats through mind-grabbing considerations, we begin to shape the container which will one day resonate with the message we wish to pass along.

We seek to pass along not only the content of the message—those from whom we are descended—but the process by which we discover our message. To encourage others to enter into this process of discovery ensures that, together, we may someday deliver some conclusive observations of value. For we certainly do not engage in a process of research that requires only a meme to deliver.

Taking time to consider these things—these details of lives once well-lived that flow into the essence of what we are—requires the same basic elements as a resonator. We need a cavity ready to be filled, shaped in just the right way to fulfill its purpose, and lots of air—giving room to let vibrations do what they were meant to do. We need something of substance to say, of course, but without the rest, our message will never really become what others are equipped to hear.

Photo above: Brass spherical Helmholtz resonator by Max Kohl, from around 1890-1900, purchased by Dayton Miller. Source: Physics Department, Cast Western Reserve University. Photograph courtesy Wikipedia photographer brian0918.

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