For centuries, some observers have claimed that shooting stars or meteors hiss as they arc through the night sky. And for just as long, skeptics have scoffed on the grounds that sound waves coming from meteors should arrive several minutes after the light waves, which travel nearly a million times faster. Now, scientists have proposed a theory to explain how our eyes and ears could perceive a meteor at nearly the same time. The hypothesis might also explain how auroras produce sound, a claim made by many indigenous peoples living at high latitudes.
Meteors release huge amounts of energy as they disintegrate in the atmosphere. They also produce low frequency radio waves that travel at the speed of light. Some scientists have suggested that those radio waves produce the sound that accompanies meteors. The waves can cause everyday objects—including fences, hair, and glasses—to vibrate, which our ears pick up as sound between 20 and 20,000 Hertz. This phenomenon, called electrophonics, is a well-known principle: “The conversion from electromagnetic waves to sound waves … is exactly how your radio works,” says Colin Price, an atmospheric scientist at Tel Aviv University in Israel and co-author of the new study. “But in this case nature provides the conversion between electromagnetic waves and acoustic waves.”