Berkeley researcher brings voices of past back to life
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient Carl Haber would be a disappointing before-and-after shot. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory senior physicist before the $625,000 "Genius" award was announced? A man devoted to slamming subatomic particles in high-energy physics experiments.
The 54-year-old married father of two children ages 11 and 14, predictably working in his Berkeley home office when "The Call" came in? Ditto.
One week after the initial flurry of media attention had ebbed, Haber spoke for over an hour in an interview from France about his work and the "afterlife" the unrestricted funds will provide.
The five-year, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grants are awarded to individual United States citizens or residents whose work demonstrates exceptional creativity and holds promise for future innovations. It's "seed money" and leaves the recipients to self-direct how it is spent.
Haber earned a place on the award list by developing IRENE, a tool whose acronym translates to "Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc."
IRENE is half a super high definition, gigapixel "camera" that reads the patterns in grooved recordings, and half mathematical algorithms turning those patterns into sound.
Significantly, in the hands of Haber, co-researcher Vitaliy Fadayev and engineer Earl Cornell, the new technology captures and restores ancient recordings from unplayable, degraded discs and cylinders made of rubber, beeswax, glass, brass, tin foil, cardboard and any material early inventors believed could hold sound.
IRENE has digitally recovered a 100-year-old recording of author Jack London's voice; an 1860 (paper) "phonautogram," the oldest recorded, recognizable human voice; and a 128-year old restoration of Alexander Graham Bell's voice, saying, "In witness whereof, hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell."
Stasis may describe Haber's focus, but other factors in a life devoted to solving complexities with detailed measurement of surfaces and data analysis of particle behaviors will undergo significant metamorphosis.
Haber said past funding for his research has largely come from new technology-related federal government support, or grants earmarked for projects at specific institutions.
The fellowship will provide nimbleness. Applying funds to travel expenses will open international possibilities.
"And, we can pilot one or two items (in a collection) that will convince stakeholders it's worth it to do an entire project," Haber said.
Haber divides the auditory archive into three categories: Collections held by libraries and museums (such as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and others); commercial (historical music industry recordings) and field recordings.
Delving into the last category could have immediate Bay Area implications. More than 3,000 field recordings of native Californians, archived at the UC Berkeley Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, represent unique holdings of culture feared lost. Made by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and feared eternally "mum" by linguistic scholars, the recordings, Haber says, are delicate, degraded or broken.
"But we've built very powerful, precise tools enabling us to take up the information from a recording's surface and give insight into how people lived, how they interpreted a musical score. If you look at a 19th century photograph, it's a wall, a surface. If you hear their voice, you imagine them being right there with you," he said. "The vision is that there are eventually enough (IRENE's) to have an international impact. It's a public good thing, not a for-profit thing."
Haber said IRENE's technology is "free," although media reports that he is hoping to make it more affordable do not mean it will be something an everyday person could buy. Instead, institutions, recording industry archivists, and restoration centers that specialize in treating valuable, historical materials pay "cost recovery" for parts and set up.
Ultimately, he sees a fee-for service model, allowing small-collection curators to access "IRENE-enabled centers." Already, a system is in place in India and another is in progress at Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass.
Asked how long it took to "lift" Bell's voice off the 1885 wax-and-cardboard disc, Haber said "one hour."
Make that 118 years (for the recording to decay), 10 years (to create IRENE), and one hour, consisting of 20 minutes measuring and 40 minutes on a computer.
"Sound in real time is ubiquitous today, but these inventors were the first people to capture the moving world as it moved," Haber said. "We've figured out, again, how to keep up with nature. It's a huge hallmark in the history of science."