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Episode 66: The Schumann Resonance

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Recap: Many proponents of "new-age" thought reference the Schumann Resonance, claiming that it's increasing as we approach something, or that it's being drown out by electromagnetic pollution from modern society. In reality, it's a phenomenon that's well understood, is basic to how Earth and the atmosphere interact, and is very constant.

Answer to Puzzler from Episode 65: The reason the Sun appears yellow is a couple different things. First, the peak wavelength is green to the human eye. But, the blue/violet end is about 90% the peak intensity while the red end is about 80%, so one would think it should appear a bit bluer. However, we're viewing it through our atmosphere. Our atmosphere does a great job at scattering blue light around, meaning that the somewhat coherent light that appears to originate from the sun's disk, as seen on Earth's surface, has a lot of blue light removed, making it appear yellow. This is why it gets redder and redder the more atmosphere the sun goes through.

Puzzler: There is no puzzler for this episode.

Q&A: There was no Q&A for this episode.

New News from a Future Episode (#68)

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Background: Resonance

To talk about this topic, before we can even get to describing the Schumann Resonance, there are three important background topics. First is the concept of resonance.

Most people are probably familiar with this, especially if you played any form of wind instrument in school. For simplicity, I'll talk about a flute. A flute is really just a hollow tube that can vibrate and that vibration will create a sound. Based on its length, it has a natural vibration frequency, meaning, if we anthropomorphize a bit, that it "wants" to vibrate at that frequency and make that sound. If you really really want to, you could also think of an empty bottle and blow over the top -- it produces sound at its natural frequency.

If you change the length of the flute, which is done by covering or opening holes on it, then the natural frequency will change. If you shorten the tube, the frequency is higher, and if you lengthen the tube, the frequency is lower. This is why a bass flute is very very long, while a piccolo is really short: When changing the length with holes isn't good enough for the range you want, you can just get a bigger or smaller instrument.

Another aspect that goes with this is the concept of octaves. Going from one low octave to the next high octave doubles the frequency. In wind instruments - sorry string players - you usually change octaves not by changing what holes you're covering or opening, but by changing how you breathe, blowing faster or slower to hit the upper or lower octaves. That's because the instrument will vibrate at both its natural frequency and multiples of it just as well.

For another example that most have probably experience, think of a person sitting on a swing. The swing is really a very simple pendulum -- it has a length and it has a mass at the end. For some people that mass is larger than others.

When swinging, to get the swing to go higher, you have to pump your legs at the same frequency as the swing is swinging. If you pump your legs a little slower or faster, then you're not going to go any higher and you'll probably swing lower because you are no longer enhancing the swing's own natural frequency, you're just choosing one of your own.

But, you could also pump your legs twice for every one swing. Or three times, or four times. Or, only once every-other swing. Those would still get you to go higher because they're simple multiples of the swing's own natural resonant frequency.

Background: Waveguides

If you're still with me, this second background topic might strain that: Waveguides.

Waves, such as sound waves (or light waves), will generally travel in all directions from their source. That means they lose intensity by the inverse-square law, meaning that when you double the distance from the source, the energy of the wave is decreased by a factor of four. Increase the distance to 3 times farther from the source, and the energy is decreased by a factor of 9. You square the relative distance to get the decrease or increase in energy.

Waveguides ideally stop this. They're aptly named: they guide waves. They do this in either one or two dimensions, as opposed to three, and the key feature is that a wave within the waveguide will undergo complete reflection. This means that none of the energy escapes, at all. To get this to happen, the width of the waveguide needs to be about the same width as the wave its propagating. So, a good waveguide for microwaves would be a bad waveguide for visible light. And speaking of visible light, that's really what fiber optics are: Waveguides for visible light so that the light is the same intensity it was at the source once it gets to the end.

There are many artificial waveguides, but also several natural ones on Earth. One is a layer of the ocean which is a very effective waveguide for sound frequencies that whales make. Another is an electronically conductive layer of Earth's atmosphere called the ionosphere ...

Background: Earth's Surface and Ionosphere

... which brings us to the third background topic, the structure of Earth and its atmosphere. Many of us probably learned the very basics of Earth's atmosphere back in grade school. You have the troposphere touching the surface and going up about 10 km, then the stratosphere, then the mesosphere, then thermosphere, and then the exosphere that "touches" space. If you had a good teacher, you may have also learned about the ionosphere, which goes from the upper part of the mesosphere, about 50 km up, and through the exosphere.

What distinguishes the ionosphere is not the molecules that make it up or its temperature or what it blocks out from space, but rather the electrical properties of it. The ionosphere is characterized by atoms that have been ionized, meaning that solar radiation has stripped the molecules of their electrons. This means that you have a mess of free electrons running around and positively charged molecules. They'll quickly reconnect and then get ionized again, but the net effect is that you get an electrically active layer of the atmosphere that's good at conducting electricity. If any of my listeners are a ham radio operator, I'm sure you'll write in if I got that slightly wrong.

Besides radio signals from hams, the ionosphere is reasonably good at propagating forms of electromagnetic radiation, AKA "light." And, coupled with Earth's surface to make a spherical shell with the lower layers of the atmosphere between them, the ionosphere makes a fairly good waveguide, and that's the basic idea behind the Schumann Resonance.

Schumann Resonances: Theory

To put this a different way, the theory behind the Schumann Resonance is that EM radiation - light - can propagate around Earth because the ionosphere and Earth's surface act as a waveguide. As with any other waveguide, this one is good at propagating signals known as "ELF," or "Extremely Low Frequency," between about 3 and 100 Hz, which means oscillations per second. You have a natural, fundamental frequency which ideally would be the size of Earth divided by the speed of light, and then you have upper and lower harmonics of that, so you have one at half that frequency, at double it, triple it, and so on.

EM radiation that's doing the resonating is produced by the roughly 50 lightning strikes per second across the entire globe. Those produce a lot of energy that's at the right frequency to be captured by the natural waveguide.

That's really it. See? -- not so complicated! And definitely nothing new-agey to it. It's a basic theoretical idea that was identified at least as far back as 1893, but really developed and studied in the 1950s by Winfried Otto Schumann.

Schumann Resonances: Practice

But, Earth's ionosphere is not a perfect layer. It's not perfectly conductive. It is at different altitudes depending on if it's day or night. Solar storms can change its conductivity and location. Lightning doesn't happen at the exact same altitude in the atmosphere. Earth's surface is not perfectly smooth, the ice caps have different electromagnetic properties, and Earth is not a perfect sphere. Earth's atmosphere is not a vacuum, so light travels more slowly in it.

All of these effects combine to mean that the ideal theory of simply taking Earth's circumference, plus the elevation of the ionosphere, and divide that by the speed of light, does not give you the exact number that's measured for the fundamental harmonic of the Schumann resonance. When I do the math, I get a natural harmonic of about 7.5 Hz, or 7.5 times per second. In other words, that's roughly how many times light can circle the globe.

The actual measured Schumann Resonance fundamental frequency is about 7.83. There are other measured harmonics, one at about 3 Hz, another at 14.3, another at 20.8, one at 27.3, another at 33.8, and so on up to about 60 Hz. But, these are fairly broad spikes, and the actual frequency can vary by up to 1 Hz or so.

New-Agey Whatever

If you search on Google or probably any internet search engine for the term, "Schumann Resonance," the first two or three links will be actual science. The majority of the rest will be new-agey. In fact, the majority are worded exactly the same, making me think that they copied the text from some original new age source that, without a provable copyright date, is going to be impossible to find.

I'm really not sure why this concept has been so adopted by the new-age movement, though if I had to guess, it would be along similar lines as quantum mechanics: It's not something that's generally well understood or, in this case, even known about. In college, I took 6 geology classes, 14 physics classes, and 8 astronomy classes and I had never heard of the Schumann Resonance. In grad school, I took another dozen or so astro and geophysics courses and never heard about it. I first heard about it on Coast to Coast AM, probably either from Gregg Braden or David Sereda -- Braden whom I talked about in episode 17, and Sereda who will be the subject of a future episode.

With that in mind, you're not going to hear anything from Coast to Coast in this episode, you can all sigh with relief. I'm going to go through really three of the main new-agey claims I've seen or heard related to it, in increasing order of wrongitude.

Nikola Tesla: The first is that it was Nikola Tesla who discovered the resonance, but that he was ahead of his time and was shot down and that it's the key to free energy. The very very first part of that is almost true -- Tesla did predict something like this back in 1899, though other people were talking and writing about it several years earlier. Tesla's idea was that it might be a way to more easily propagate energy around the planet for actual power usage -- nothing to do with free energy. The problem with invoking Tesla is that it's much like having a Galileo complex or saying that someone is like Hitler: It ends the conversation because Tesla is the go-to guy for energy stuffy among New Agers. Many would have you believe that Tesla invented everything we could possibly dream of but that the [fill in the blank] shut him down and covered it all up. It's hard to separate fact from fiction if you read about him on the internet today, and if anyone doesn't already listen to Brian Dunning's "Skeptoid" podcast, I recommend at least listening to episode 345 on "The Cult of Nikola Tesla."

Human-made EM noise interferes with it (so give up cell phones and buy my product which inundates you with 7.83 Hz noise for up to $250): The second claim I've seen, which is probably the worst in terms of robbing you of your money, can roughly be fit into the "naturalistic fallacy" and is promoted by people who hate modern society. I say that because it's the ones who are effectively anti-electricity and alleged electromagnetic sensitives. They make the claim that we either evolved or were created living on a planet where we were in harmony with the natural Schumann resonances. But, that natural frequency is so drowned out these days by artificial electromagnetic "pollution" from humans that we grow physically ill or psychologically depressed simply as a byproduct of everyday life. To quote from the "Music Your Mind" website:

"Simply put, human beings were not meant to live surrounded by power lines, satellite receivers and cell phone towers. We were meant to live surrounded by the natural resonance that helps us achieve our optimum brainwave state, but instead, we’ve created our own bunkers, cut off from the Earth’s frequency by our own inventions and conveniences. Is it any wonder that stress, depression and anxiety disorders are more abundant today than ever before in history?"

The solution according to many websites that I looked at was to buy their electronic (ironic) product now at the low-low price of anywhere from around $60 to $250 that would produce artificial frequencies at 7.83 Hz, re-energizing your body and mind. I think from my tone that you can guess what I think about these.

Schumann Resonance is Increasing, Therefore [X]: The third new-age claim I think tracks back to Gregg Braden, as most people I see making this online reference back to him if they reference it at all. The claim that I've seen in various forms simplifies to say that since about 1987, during José Argüellas' "harmonic convergence" thing, the Schumann Resonance is "increasing" and around 2000 was not at 7.83 Hz, but around 9, and a few years later it was around 11. Or some people put the start date at 1980. As is typical of Braden, he states, "Science doesn't know why, or what to make of it." But of course he does. And it all ties into his idea that somehow time is speeding up or some such thing.

It's nice that I can spend a few episodes where I'm not saying over and over again that Richard Hoagland is just making stuff up, but that other people are. As far as I can tell, Braden's "US Navy" source for this is bogus and the claim is pure poppycock. He's making it up or someone else did and he just took it as-is.

The only way for the Schumann Resonance to change is for Earth to dramatically decrease or increase in size, and/or for the ionosphere to dramatically decrease or increase in height by well over a factor of 100. That's the only way to do it. If time were actually speeding up, then we wouldn't notice it relative to the Schumann Resonance because light would be increasing in speed, too. So it would take just as many of the new time unit as it did of the old time unit to travel around the planet.


In the end, the Schumann Resonance isn't that complicated of an idea. It's fundamental frequency is how long it takes light to travel around the planet when bounced between Earth's surface and the ionosphere. As with all resonators, it has upper and lower harmonic frequencies that are roughly integral multiples or divisions of the fundamental frequency. It's not exact because Earth is not an ideal, perfect sphere and homogenous system.

But somehow, this has been co-opted by the New-Age movement to mainly argue either conspiracy, a naturalistic fallacy, or that one guy's book is telling you what's going on because he made up information about it.

That's not to say the Schumann Resonance isn't interesting. It may be able to be used to detect lightning on other planets. Or possibly maybe kinda predict earthquakes on the very short term. It's associated with many transient atmospheric events like sprites and elves. And perhaps because of that, and because it does take some explanation to realize what it is - and many new-agers who try to describe it without their notes get it wrong - that it has been adopted by that crowd to be used as an explanation for their particular pet idea.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 2. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Stuart R.   Boulder, CO, USA

7:47pm on Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Young stars, before the "settle down," are typically brighter, but they are not bluer. Once they become more of a main sequence type star, they slowly increase in brightness but don't really change color. Estimates are that the Sun was 30% fainter 5 billion years ago

Flip   Australia

1:19pm on Monday, July 1st, 2013 

I have some feedback about the puzzler and I'm kind of surprised that it hasn't been mentioned in the episodes after this one.

You talk about different wavelengths of colour and the atmosphere - but never mentioned the age of the sun. Surely the colour yellow also has to do with the fact that our sun isn't young, since younger stars are hotter and therefore bluer?

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