Scholar Holler: Preston Wilson, Ph.D.

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Preston Wilson is an Associate Professor in the Acoustics and Dynamic Systems & Control program of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Texas in Austin. A native of Texas he received his Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of Texas in Austin and then a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Boston University. He has spent his career studying underwater acoustics.

Dr. Wilson sat down with The Ethogram editor Aaron Haiman for a chat about sound, dolphins, and some U.S. Marines

The Ethogram: What inspired you to become a scientist?

Preston Wilson: When I was a kid, my mom worked for NASA. The fact that she was involved in science, and in particular in space exploration, got me really excited about exploring the world and space.

ET: What is you funniest, or most memorable, research related story?

PW: Well, one of my most memorable experiences doing research was when I was working on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. We were conducting research on how to use passive acoustic sensors to detect and track military vehicles. So one time we were out setting up sensors for a test. We were using a Yellow Ryder truck to move our equipment around. Now this was not long after the Oklahoma City bombing (editor’s note: a yellow Ryder truck was packed with explosives, parked, and then used to blow up a city office building in Oklahoma City, OK killing and injuring many). Well, a group of US Marines spotted us as thought that we might be trying to set and blow up a bomb as well. A team of Marines approaches us, weapons loaded and at the ready, and demanded to know what we were doing on a military base. We carefully explained that we were researchers and showed them our IDs and they decided that we were not a threat.

One other story that has really stuck with me was that of meeting the US Navy’s trained marine mammals, particularly the dolphins. They are absolutely amazing animals trained like police dogs to retrieve things and explore underwater. When you meet one, they really remind me of meeting a big dog. They are curious, not at all worried or afraid of you, and you can certainly sense their intelligence. They just want to find out about you. If you put your hand down into the water, they come right up to you, they look at you out of the water, and they use their sonar to explore your hand. They move around your hand and you can feel the sonar, it feels kind of tingly, from many different sides as the dolphin figures you out.

ET: As an expansion on that topic, there is a lot of controversy over the use of sonar and other acoustic devices used by the Navy on marine mammals. Do you have opinions or insight into that area?

PW: I have had a little bit of experience in that area. I worked on a project that was attempting to figure out if acoustic devices could cause the bends (decompression sickness) in marine mammals. Most of the time, marine mammals can dive and surface quite quickly and not get the bends. However, autopsies found that some beached whales had little bubbles in their blood. So the Navy wanted to determine if there was a possibility that if a marine mammal was disturbed and so came to the surface quickly, and at the same time was hit by sonar waves, the combination could cause the bubbles to form. We looked into it using models and found that if the marine mammal came to the surface quickly and was very close to the sonar source (a few meters) it was theoretically possible that bubbles could result, but the conditions had to be pretty specific. To do further tests would require using actual animals, so that is not going to happen.

Beyond that, I am sure that the marine mammals do experience sonar, but I am not sure if that contributes to beaching or anything else. Whales beach themselves sometimes and have done so since before sonar, and we have no idea why.

ET: What is one misconception about science in general or your particular field of science, which you would like people to know about?

PW: I would like it if people were more aware of how much acoustic work is done and still needs to be done around them.

I’ll tell you an acoustics joke. Two people are talking at a party and one of them asks the other what they do.

The second person says they work in acoustics for Dell Computers.

The first person is surprised as says, “Why do work there, Dell Computers aren’t noisy.”

The second person responds by saying that they aren’t noisy because a whole bunch of acoustic scientists have been working on them to make them quiet!

There is so much work on acoustics that happens all around us and more to be done, and people don’t realize that. I mean I go into a restaurant and there has been no work done to make it more acoustically pleasant. You go into these spaces that have high ceilings, bare walls, concrete floors and the noise is just terrible, and I find myself looking around and thinking that with just a little work, the acoustics could be a lot better. Bars are even worse since they often host musicians and the sound quality is terrible and I start thinking, ‘come on, they should really work on that.’

ET: If you were not working on this project, what would you like to be studying?

PW: Well, there is a small effort looking at exploring Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. They are trying to figure out how to send a probe down the surface of Europa, which is frozen, and measure the acoustics of the liquid ocean that is hypothesized to be under the surface. The combination of acoustics and space exploration would make that a really terrific project to work on.

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