An ultrasound weapon explaining Cuba situation is “fairly implausible,” says acoustics expert

An article that appeared in the New York Times on Thursday cited experts in acoustics who referred to the scenario of the ‘sonic attacks’ on U.S. diplomats in Cuba as “more appropriate to a James Bond movie.”

The Times report quotes Jurgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany and an expert on acoustics, who said, “Sound can cause discomfort and even serious harm, and researchers have explored the idea of sonic weaponry for years. But scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba.

“I’d say it’s fairly implausible,” he told New York Times reporter Carl Zimmer.

For weeks we’ve heard of incidents involving a secret sonic weapon that has stricken U.S. diplomats in Havana, Cuba, with mysterious medical symptoms that include damaged eardrums, hearing loss, and cognitive difficulties. There have also been reports of concussions.

A tense situation between the two governments turned even more sour at the end of last week when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to the incidents as “attacks,” the first time he had used that more aggressive term in reference to the situation. As a result more than half of the American delegation at the U.S. embassy in Havana has been ordered to leave by the U.S. government and the consular office shut down indefinitely. No new visas will be issued to Cubans who wish to travel to the U.S.

Also last week the State Department issued a warning to U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba, but did not offer a specific reason. Interestingly, between half a million and a million people who live in the U.S. visited Cuba last year, many who stayed in hotels and rental houses, and not one incident involving such attacks has ever been reported.

This week the State Department ordered 15 officials at the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. to leave the country explaining it off “as an equitable impact on both embassies’ operations.” Cubans have reported that the absence of the 15 will basically gut their consular staff and the work done with Cubans living in the U.S. This move will obviously affect negatively those living in the U.S. who wish to travel to Cuba.

The State Department has emphasized that “this does not signal a change of policy or a determination of responsibility for the attacks. We are maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba at this time.”

In the New York Times article, Zimmer writes:

The Pentagon funded development of loudspeakers to deliver long-range blasts of sound. The Navy uses them to ward off pirates, while the Army deploys them at checkpoints. In recent years, police have used so-called long range acoustic devices to break up crowds like those at the protests in Ferguson, Mo.

But these weapons work because they are insufferably loud, and if one were used against diplomats in Cuba, there would be no mystery about it. So speculation has swirled around another possibility: a device producing a sound outside the range of human hearing.

One possibility is infrasound — low-frequency sound that cannot be heard by humans. A report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2002 noted that the military had tried to weaponize infrasound but had not succeeded because it was hard to focus the wavelengths.

The primary effect of infrasound on humans “appears to be annoyance,” the report concluded.

Zimmer adds:

Even if another player has succeeded in developing an ultrasonic weapon, researchers said, the laws of physics make it unlikely that the device could harm diplomats from afar.

“Ultrasound cannot travel a long distance,” said Jun Qin, an acoustic engineer at Southern Illinois University. The further the sound goes, the weaker it gets. And, noted Dr. Garrett, humidity in a place like Havana would weaken it still more.

Moreover, a beam of ultrasound will mostly bounce off the exterior of a building. What little sound got through would be of a lower, less harmful frequency.

One way to overcome these hurdles would be to use a bigger weapon. But a massive vehicle topped with a giant sound cannon in front of diplomatic houses would probably not go unnoticed.

“If you’re talking about a ray-gun rifle knocking out someone with ultrasound they can’t hear at a hundred meters — that’s not going to happen,” said Dr. Leighton. (Professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at Southampton University.)

Zimmer continues explaining:

An ultrasound-emitting device planted inside a building, on the other hand, might be close and powerful enough to cause harm to occupants. But even an interior wall would block its waves.

A smaller emitter placed even more closely, perhaps in someone’s pillow, might do the trick, said Dr. Qin. But it’s hard to believe such a device could escape attention. In theory, a building could be packed with small emitters; however, experts called it unlikely.

And while ultrasound can cause many of the symptoms reported by the diplomats, there’s no evidence that it can cause mild brain injury.

“I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms,” Dr. Altmann said. “Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”

For all of these reasons, experts said, ultrasound weapons should not top the list of possible explanations for the hearing loss and headaches and other symptoms said to have been observed in diplomats.

Based on the evidence provided, which has NOT been shared with the Cubans, as reported by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, although Cuba has allowed the FBI to visit Havana and investigate the incident, and the fact that most everyone is questioning the reason for this sudden turnaround of events by the U.S. administration with its counterparts in Havana, we are seeking logical reasons for this hasty decision on Cuba by the Trump administration.

Progreso Weekly columnists have speculated in several articles over the past two weeks:

The lie of the sonic attacks

‘Eargate’ feels like a U.S. operation to undo Obama’s Cuba opening

There’s also the fact that the only persons who seem pleased with the situation are the members of Congress from South Florida.

Only time will tell.

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