Mapparium

A spherical room that allows you to whisper sweet nothings in your ear!

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The Mapparium is a giant hollow globe of the world, with the seas and continents vividly drawn on stained glass. It was built in 1935 following a suggestion by architect Chester Lindsay Churchill. It took eight
months to paint and bake all 608 glass panels, which are mounted on a spherical bronze frame.

You traverse a walkway cutting through the center of the Earth linking up two opposite points on the equator. Three hundred lightbulbs illuminate the globe from the outside. Looking at the world from the inside out is an odd experience, but what also strikes visitors are the strange acoustics, which were an accidental by-product of the geometry.

One of the effects you’ll hear is false localisation:

“Suppose you are on the Mapparium bridge facing South America. There is a source of noise to your right, but you discover that you hear the noise coming from your left!”

William Hartmann, Michigan State University

This happens because the reflections from the globe are focussed and very loud. Your brain thinks the sound is coming from the reflection direction and not direct from the source. This focussing also allows you to do things like whisper in your own ear!

As you approach the exact center of the Mapparium sphere you suddenly become aware of strong reflections of your own voice . . . If you sway to the left, you hear yourself in your right ear. If you sway to the right, you hear yourself in your left ear.

William Hartmann, Michigan State University

Location

Marky Baker Eddy Library in Washington. They have regular tours. At the end of my tour, they allowed us to linger a little to play with the acoustics.

Credits

Photo: Smart Destinations

Teufelsberg, Germany

A disused listening station from the Cold War that has powerful echoes from the near-spherical radome and you can whisper into your own ears.

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Listening station

The abandoned spy station at Teufelsberg, Berlin is on top of Devil’s Mountain rising up from the Grünewald forest. This man-made hill was constructed from millions of cubic metres of rubble created by bombing raids and artillery bombardments during World War II. The remarkable acoustics is in the almost spherical radome on top of the highest derelict tower. These domes used to cover listening equipment used by the British and Americans to spy on the East. There are a number of different sounds effects you can play with in the dome. Climb on top of the concrete plinth and get into the middle of the sphere and the strong focus creates richocheting sounds when you clap your hands.

Alternatively, you can try whispering just off-centre, and see if you can find the right spot for whispering into one of your own ears. If you go to the side of the dome and a friend goes to the opposite side, you can use the walls as a whispering gallery. Whisper into the wall and your voice will skim the inside of the walls and your friend will hear your words apparently emerging from the graffitied walls. If instead of whispering quietly you make a loud bang near a wall, then you can hear the bang pass you several times as it does complete circuits of the dome walls. This sound example has three balloon bursts:

Being reverberant, the dome also attracts musicians to play music.

Location and logistics

Visiting details