The Science of Silence

Megin Jiménez

In travels, it was not, say, a new species of poisonous fish, an acute shade of green, or a certain drastic temperature the young biologist sought. In fact, it was later revealed that her indiscriminate roaming through tropic and arctic as an enterprising postdoctoral research fellow had, from the beginning, contained a search for a very particular kind of silence. A pure silence, if I can be forgiven the use of that controversial word. After her death, it was discovered that an earlier draft of her seminal doctoral thesis, “Carbon-based Quiet and the Properties of Stillness,” had actually contained the word “unadulterated” in the title.

But Dr. Alma Prado came to find the unpredictability of field work frustrating. After months of staking out some corner of Siberia for an expanse of snow free of human intervention, a howling wind would crash the depth of silence in a matter of seconds. Her two-year study on the stillness properties of moonlit rocks of the Sonoran Desert was rendered inconclusive by the steadfast crawling of a single satellite across the night sky. That was when she decided to turn to laboratory silence. Sour academics who, for years, had viciously envied her sponsored travels, the feature in National Geographic magazine, the adoring students, cried, “Hypocrite!” for she had always been a proponent of the natural properties of stillness. But she became convinced that synthetic silence could in fact yield something more perfect than anything nature had to offer.

“The alchemy of objects!” Dr. Prado would exclaim in her lectures. The phrase is still underlined in my notes. By this she meant extracting expectation from “owned things,” for example, a sweater tossed on a bed, a novel with passages underlined and a few pages folded at the corner. Or removing the suggestion of vagary from the sheer shape of an armchair. I knew her at the time she was conducting the so-called “Clocks that Stopped Ticking” experiments. “You will note, mes chers élèves,” she would say, “that although these clocks are quite obviously still, they do not present the defined properties of silence.”

I wrote my master’s thesis on a research study that had managed to strip a seventeenth century grandfather clock of its historic context (“place-interference” as we called it). One of my regrets at this autumnal stage in my life is that I had already left the university by the time Dr. Prado finally managed, by centrifugal force, to remove any sense of what the time had been when the clock stopped (“that it had been that time somewhere at some point”), thus defying the very nature of the object, or “unstill body.” The Grandfather Paradox was the contribution she thought would bring her immortality.

Then came the heyday of neurochemistry. Laboratory silence departments across the country lost their funding and eventually became thought of as quaint. I believe Buenos Aires is the only place you can follow a proper course of study, including lab work, now. Dr. Prado refused this latest trend; she called it “chemical-hippocampal onanism,” even though it could have led her to finally proving her theories on adulteration.

In scientific terms, I know Prado has become a historical footnote. But at least she’s still in the book. It wasn’t until her biography came out, which explored the details of her scandalous personal life, that her name came to be mentioned again by the general public. And most people today (or at least the readers of this illustrious publication, I imagine), will know her from Contaminated by Expectations, the art house film about her love affair with the Mongolian throat singer.

Most of her former students tend to be scornful of it, but I actually liked the film as the burnished version of her story. It’s difficult to think of it as Dr. Prado. She always wore her hair short, to start, and at that period in her life, she favored rather unflattering thick-lensed glasses. In any case, I don’t believe a movie can represent a real person’s life.

The film opens with a silent black screen, then comes the sound of an animal scampering in the snow. The young scientist’s face appears bathed in firelight. She is in a yurt in southern Siberia, a snow leopard fur wrapped around her shoulders. She’s silent, she’s listening to her guide. He’s bewitching her with a story of the waterfall above the Buyan Gol, the Deer River, where mysterious harmonic sounds attracted the gentle creatures to bask in the water, which were then revealed to humans. He tells her that the way he sings, the instruments his friends play, come from centuries of mimicking the sounds of animals, wind, and water. “Singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountainside to find the right place to sing,” he murmurs. She asks him to sing, and then he chants, or sings, for a long time, about ten minutes, too long, a chant with two pitches at once, as if a spirit in the yurt was singing with him. I think the film included too many episodes of dalliances with her students, but there may have been a decision to condense for dramatic effect. I never witnessed any of the alleged episodes myself. I took her flirting to be universal, a way of being in the world, but perhaps I met her after the rule-breaking had mellowed into simply charm that spark when you made eye contact.

The director did do some research on the science, which I appreciated. “Contamination by expectations,” that was Dr. Prado’s phrase for the phenomenon that caused her adulteration experiments to fail. Even after stripping away a given object’s time and place, she could never account for the expectation factor, the one contained in the human mind. The film seemed to suggest this was connected to her own restlessness, both physical and romantic.

Her test tubes grew dusty, her name fell into obscurity. People claimed she had lost her mind (a neurochemical imbalance), because it didn’t make sense that someone so charismatic and ambitious would refuse to speak, ever again. A metaphorical hunger strike against her decline. But I saw it as the logical extension of her search. She had scoured the natural world, she had investigated the man-made world, with some success, but always with the taint of expectation. She was the only one who could strip this away. The last thing she wrote in her notebook, as reported by her biographer, was the following: “Today, I begin a new journey. Henceforth I will inhabit the dark place behind my teeth and above my tongue. It is a silence that will feed itself.”

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