BIANCA BOSKER (CONTRIBUTING WRITER, THE ATLANTIC): It was in 2014, when Karthic Thallikar first heard the sound, this low pitched whine. “Eeeeee…”


BIANCA: He was living in this neighborhood in Arizona, in Chandler, Arizona. He'd moved there with his family and used to decompress after work by taking long walks around the neighborhood at night. And it was on one of these nights that he first noticed this low, steady whine somewhere in the distance.

<TAPE> KARTHIC THALLIKAR: It sounded like a constant whine, like, Eeeeeee…

BIANCA: And at first he brushed it off. He thought, you know, maybe someone's pool pump. But then on a later night, he heard it again...


BIANCA: And again... and again... and night after night after night. He was noticing it as he was going outside to garden or grill, that it was in his backyard.

“Eeeeeee…” with warbles

BIANCA: And then worse yet, he was trying to go to sleep one night when he noticed that there was that noise inside his house.

        “Eeeeeee…” chopped up

<TAPE> KARTHIC: I had a hard time falling asleep and then after falling asleep, around 3am or 4am, it would get very loud, and I would wake up.

BIANCA: It sounded, as he described it later, like these…


BIANCA: … you know, tons of mosquitoes buzzing in your ear. Only they wouldn't stop.


BIANCA: He tried to move bedrooms. He started sleeping with earplugs. When that didn't help, he tied a towel around his head. And night after night, he would try and fall asleep with his earplugs in and his head bandaged. And the sound just wouldn't stop.

<TAPE> KARTHIC: It was, like, constant. It was very irritating and it was very upsetting.

BIANCA: Karthic didn't know at this point where the noise was coming from, and so he set out to figure out what was causing it. And he would go out at night on what he called these noise patrols. First, he set out by foot, but when that didn't really work, he started to widen his circumference.

<TAPE> KARTHIC: And I started expanding the perimeter. Driving in my car, biking on the bike to figure out where the noise is coming from.

BIANCA: And he would stop every so often to listen for the noise.


BIANCA: After eight weeks or so, Karthic finally traced the noise back to what he thought was the source. It was this gray, windowless building with all the charm of a shoebox, and it belonged, he discovered, to a company called CyrusOne.


BIANCA: CyrusOne was a data center, basically a columbarium for thousands of servers, these servers that were hosting data to make it accessible for processing or access from just about anywhere in the world. As Karthic discovered, the noise was being, unfortunately, not caused by something temporary. This wasn't just the noise of construction, but the noise was the steady hum of chillers.


BIANCA: These big, essentially air conditioning units that had been installed on the buildings and were there in order to keep the servers cool. Servers, sort of like people, are most comfortable at around 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And so these chillers ensured that these heat-generating servers would stay cool enough as they worked.


BIANCA: We hear a lot about storing our data in the cloud. It's such a lovely, elegant euphemism: This idea of hard data sort of existing in the ether. But in fact, it exists in places like CyrusOne. In some ways, the sound of CyrusOne's data center, this low...




BIANCA: ...Off in the desert, that's the sound of us living, of us clicking, of us searching for lyrics, online shopping, poking people on Facebook, liking Instagram posts. That's our noise, too.


BIANCA: So Karthic began to try and take action to silence this noise. Karthic actually reached out directly to someone from CyrusOne, called him very late at night when he was unable to sleep because of the noise. And this other man said that he was trying to sleep, and Karthic told him that…

<TAPE> KARTHIC: I'm trying to fall asleep too, dude.


BIANCA: He took this issue to anyone he could think of: his homeowner's association, the members of the city council, the mayor, the police. He sent them an email actually saying,

<TAPE> KARTHIC: I do not think I'm imagining things here and wasting people's time.

BIANCA: He added that he'd taken his family with him on one of these noise patrols...

<TAPE> KARTHIC: I drove my entire family to the same spot, and they, too, could hear the noise.

BIANCA: He was told there was nothing they could do. He was told it wasn't that big of a deal. And yet to him, the noise just got worse. CyrusOne kept building. They were expanding. They added more buildings. They bought more land. They added more chillers. There were nights where Karthic just couldn't get to sleep whatsoever. He started wearing earplugs sometimes during the day. When he'd drive home, it was always with this sense of dread of returning back to the noise. He thought about installing new windows or planting trees to block the sound. Then in the end, he decided that even though he'd lose money, even though he'd have to move to a smaller house, he was just going to have to sell his home.


BIANCA: It was around three years after Karthic had first heard the hum that another neighbor of his began to hear this humming coming across the street from her house.

<CLIP> PERLA GORDON (NEIGHBOR): Here we are half a mile away on Walnut and Bluebird. We walk outside our house, and there’s a noise.

BIANCA: And then there was another neighbor that noticed that there was this constant, steady whine, like what one person described as sort of like a constantly revving engine. Or this jet getting ready for takeoff.


BOB DIEPENBROCK (NEIGHBOR): I would describe it as a blender on steroids but at a distance, so it’s like “Eeeeee…”

NEIGHBOR: Just fills in your head, almost like a mosquito.

CHERYL JANNUZZI (NEIGHBOR): In the past two and a half years, I can honestly say that I have not slept a full night’s sleep.

GORDON: Like it’s a wave, like it comes and goes.

AMY WEBER (NEIGHBOR): To me, it sounds like someone is down my street in their car laying on their horn nonstop.

BIANCA: And finally, one of Karthic’s neighbors, who lived nearby but in a slightly different housing development, began to post these fliers around the neighborhood asking if anyone else had been bothered by the whine.

<CLIP> JENNIFER GOEHRING (NEIGHBOR): This is the lovely noise, and we are right next to Dobson Park. We are in the middle of the neighborhood, and you can hear it this morning.

<TAPE> KARTHIC: And it felt strangely... Relieved—I wouldn't say good. I would use the word, relieved. I was relieved that others are having the same issue and that we are going to potentially come together to seek a solution.

BIANCA: Eventually, with the added force of all these neighbors together, they were able to get a sit-down meeting through the city with CyrusOne.



ABC ARIZONA 1: It’s a sound that just won’t go away. A loud hum consuming a Chandler neighborhood.

ABC ARIZONA 2: You can hear the hum of those fans if you’re out playing at the park like these kids are tonight. The problem is, so can the hundreds of neighbors that live across the street.


BIANCA: CyrusOne actually did vow that they were going to do something about this. They said that they would spend around two million dollars to install noise abatement around the chillers, essentially to wrap them in these blankets that were designed to muffle some of the sound. So there is progress that's being made on this, although there are neighbors that I spoke with who will tell you that they don't think it's better yet.

<CLIP> ABC ARIZONA 2: CyrusOne told the city they addressed the noise on 24 of their chillers. Neighbors say it hasn’t changed.

BIANCA: Granted, the company is doing something. But of course, the devilish thing about a noise is once you notice it and especially once you're irritated by it, it can be very, very hard to unhear. There's research that shows that we actually start to listen for the noise that irritates us, that we train ourselves to pick it up even better than we did at the outset.


BIANCA: So while the low-pitched whine plagued this specific neighborhood in Chandler, Arizona, noise isn't just a problem that exists there. All of us are affected by it in ways I think most of us don't realize or think about. I mean, noise is this violation that we can't control, and to which, because of our anatomy, we cannot close ourselves off. And research shows that the world is getting noisier. I think that noise tends to be this issue that we dismiss as this kind of minor issue for cranks or for the idle rich. But in fact, it's an incredibly widespread problem and one we need to be taking more seriously.


NOAM: Coming up, the dangers and the weaponization of noise. I’m Noam Hassenfeld filling in for Sean Rameswaram. This is Today, Explained.



NOAM: Bianca Bosker, the Atlantic. How big of a problem is noise? Do people really care that much about it?

BIANCA: They do. And we should all care more about it. Noise is a huge issue and really it's always been an issue. I mean, the earliest recorded noise complaint is 4,000 years old.


BIANCA: It's from the epic of Gilgamesh. One of the gods was so irritated by the racket caused by humans that he and the council of gods decided to solve the problem by exterminating mankind. And there are a number of cases, even since the beginning of the year, of people shooting each other, killing each other in part because of noise. And in case there's any doubt as to just how offensive and harmful noise can be, I think it's worth noting that the U.S. military and law enforcement have actually repeatedly relied on noise as a weapon. You know, they've used it to try and hurry up  getting the dictator Manuel Noriega to surrender by actually just pounding…


BIANCA: … his hideout with KISS.


        <SONG> KISS: I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day...

BIANCA: Troops have used it in Iraq. I mean, blasting the battlefield ahead of time.

NOAM: What kind of stuff?

BIANCA: Guns N’ Roses...




BIANCA: … and they've used noise in the form of a torture technique. Eminem...


BIANCA: … to the Meow Mix jingle.

<SONG> METAL MEOW MIX JINGLE: Meow, meow, meow, meow… Meow Mix. Still the only one cats ask for by name.

BIANCA: It sounds miserable.

        <SONG> MEOW MIX JINGLE: Meow, meow, meow, meow… <SPEEDING UP>


NOAM: Is there, like, a technical definition of noise? What’s, what’s the best way to think about it?

BIANCA: There are various definitions of noise, but noise is slightly different from sound noise. Already that word implies sound with a judgment, right?


BIANCA: … Sound that is annoying, sound that is disturbing, and part of what makes noise such a difficult thing to fight is that it is subjective. I spoke with an acoustic expert who described it to me as sound is when you mow your lawn...


BIANCA: Noise is when your neighbor mows their lawn...


BIANCA: … and music is when your neighbor mows your lawn.


BIANCA: And I think what's tricky about noise as a kind of foe is that it doesn't leave a trace. It vanishes when you go after it. It's hard to measure. It's hard to describe. And again, it's subjective. You know, your music literally sometimes, right...


BIANCA: … if you're living in an apartment with your neighbors, blasting music is oftentimes my noise. 

        SFX - FAUCET (SOFT)

BIANCA: You know, one also thing to keep in mind is that noise isn't necessarily loud. I think a lot of us had this idea that sound has to be at a really high volume to drive us crazy.


 BIANCA: And if you ever tried to sleep through like a dripping faucet, you know that something can be very quiet and still drive you up the wall.


NOAM: So it can be, like, annoying for people. But is it actually bad? Is it bad for health or anything like that?

BIANCA: Yeah, well, there's certain short term effects of noise.


BIANCA: So in response to noise, you know, we release stress hormones, our blood pressure goes up, our heart rate rises, and our body can respond to noise, especially at night, as low as around 33 decibels, which is around as loud as a purring cat.




BIANCA: Studies have shown that over long periods of time, prolonged exposure to noise can lead to a higher risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia, depression. It can be very harmful to children. There was a landmark study that was done in the 70s that there were two classrooms in a school in New York, one of which was very close to the clatter of a subway track. And they found that the reading level of that noisy classroom was actually around a year behind that of students in a quieter classroom. And that difference disappeared once they installed some noise abatement to reduce the sound.

NOAM: Is it mostly affecting people that live in cities? Is it affecting certain types of populations differently?

BIANCA: Noise levels tend to be higher in poorer communities, as well as neighborhoods that have higher populations of black, Asian and Latino residents. And in fact, these researchers thought that their numbers might actually underestimate the difference because people who are wealthier probably take soundproofing measures to even further protect themselves from any noise that may exist.

NOAM: Like you're paying a premium for silence when you pay more for housing or something

BIANCA: Or even quiet. That quiet is something that's only accessible to people who work on lush corporate campuses or have the money to go to spores or a silent yoga retreats or you name it to escape.

NOAM: Mmhm

BIANCA: Again, I think we often think about noise as being this kind of 1 percent problem, something that people, you know, they complain about the leaf blowers at their vacation homes. But in fact, noise can have an undue burden on people that don't have the resources to protect themselves from it. There really is a concern that silence and quiet is becoming a luxury.


NOAM: I imagine there are different laws in different places about this. Is there like a national law against noise in anyway?

BIANCA: The federal government briefly had an appetite for noise legislation in the 70s. In 1972, the Nixon administration passed a federal noise statute designed to quiet the country. But in 1981, just nine years later, the Reagan administration withdrew funding for that. And so since then, as one of these noise experts put it, the federal government has essentially been out of the noise business and the burden has fallen to local governments to really take charge on quieting their constituents.

NOAM: So if the burden is falling to local communities, what kind of regulations do they have? How do you even stop things like this?

BIANCA: In general, local noise codes tend to be either qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative basically prohibits any sort of noise that is disturbing or unreasonably loud, but they don't go so far as to define what constitutes disturbing or unreasonably loud.


BIANCA: A quantitative noise code, on the other hand, will define in quantitative, measurable terms what is disturbing or unreasonably loud. So New York City, for example, has a quantitative noise code.


BIANCA: There are rules that say that a dog can't bark for more than 10 contiguous minutes between 7:00 a.m. and 10 p.m. I believe that's what it says. But between like 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., I believe know a dog can only bark for five continuous minutes.

        SONG OUT

NOAM: Wait, seriously? That’s, that’s a real thing?

BIANCA: Yeah, I mean, if a dog is barking for three continuous minutes at 2:00 in the morning, I think technically it's okay. But there are noise researchers who argue that even with these measurements, we may not be measuring noise correctly. Noise codes tend to not put as much weight on, let's say, very low frequency noise...


BIANCA: …  that can: A) Travel very far distances, and B) Can be felt. I mean, low frequency noise, that's things like the rattle from a subwoofer...


BIANCA: Or the thudding of a bus outside.


BIANCA: Things that you may feel right more than you can actually hear them.

NOAM: Yeah. I remember when I when I lived in New York, I lived over this like restaurant and they would play music pretty late at night and I went down to ask them to you know turn it down and it just wasn’t that loud down there I mean I could feel it upstairs because of the bass but down there, it just seemed like it was at a normal volume.

BIANCA: Right. But I'm sure you were annoyed by it.

NOAM: It was it was annoying. It was hard to sleep.

BIANCA: I mean, not to worry you, but it probably wasn't very good for you either.

NOAM: So with the CyrusOne example, you said they ended up wrapping the chillers to make the noise better, even if you’re sort of not exactly sure if that ended up working. But did they have to do that? Was it because of a noise code violation?

BIANCA: I know from speaking with a local police commander in Chandler that there wasn't really appetite to issue a citation to CyrusOne, it wasn't something that at least at the time, they felt had violated the noise code. When the city issued the permits, they weren't required to consider the noise footprint of CyrusOne nor did they. I think what was frustrating for the neighbors was that the police would common sample the sound, whereas they were living with it.

NOAM: Mhmm.

BIANCA: What can be kind of tolerable during a brief visit is something very different when you're when it's inescapable. And so CyrusOne hasn't, to my knowledge, technically violated some code or ordinance that the city has put in place. And nonetheless, they are trying, as they put it, to be good neighbors and are taking some efforts to try and quiet themselves.

NOAM: OK so just to be clear it’s really noisy out there and the regulations we do have aren’t exactly doing much... Do we just have to get used to a noisy world?

BIANCA: I think it's important to appreciate the way that the nature of noise is changing. It used to be that a lot of the noise was created by the human hand. You know, we were ringing bells, we were driving carriages, we were crying as town criers. And now when you look at the noise, it's being produced. I think one thing that's kind of chilling is the way that it's become autonomous, right.

NOAM: Mhmm

BIANCA: Machines are an inexhaustible source of noise. You know, their vocal cords don't tire. They don't need to take a break. They can just keep going and they can be amplified. Of course, people who spend a lot of time and quiet, you know, talk about, you know, really being able to tune into yourself more to not be accosted with this external activation all of the time.


BIANCA: Because we have become so surrounded by noise, I think a lot of us have responded by adding our own noise to it. You know, we insulate ourselves from outside noise by giving ourselves personal noise.


BIANCA: We listen to podcasts. We listen to music. And so, you know, I think in some ways that may not be helping the problem. I mean, I do want people to listen to the end of this podcast.

NOAM: <Laughs>

BIANCA: But, you know, I also think that in some ways we've reacted defensively to noise by adding more noise. Right. I think it raises the question of if we took out our earphones, if we had to listen to the sound of our cities, of our environments, what do we here? Do you like it? Are we bothered by it? And if we are bothered by it, let's do something about it.


NOAM: I wonder… if people haven’t turned us off already, maybe we can give...

BIANCA: Yeah <Laughs>

NOAM: … them a couple seconds of quiet?


BIANCA: Eeeeee...

NOAM: <Laughs> You gotta ruin it!

BIANCA: <Laughs>


NOAM: Bianca Bosker is a contributing writer for the Atlantic.

She also writes books. Her most recent one is called Cork Dork, and it’s all about wine.

Thanks, Bianca, for connecting us with Karthic Thallikar.

I’m Noam Hassenfeld, filling in for Sean Rameswaram. This is Today, Explained.