A PhD in fart noises.

(922 days)

What must it be like I wonder to start your graduate life as a keen eyed scientist, the research world your oyster, deciding which area to study? I imagine biologists bursting with enthusiasm about every organism on the planet, chemists marveling at the magical alchemy of the universe and physicists grappling with the fundamental particles of matter and their movement, the very fabric of the entire universe. It all sounds very lofty and intellectual.

So now I also wonder how a mechanical engineer researching fluid dynamics and an aerospace engineer end up spending their days listening to the sound of farts.

And to the sound of urine.

And the sound of pooping.

Wondering what’s going on yet? Well urine for a treat.


Fluid dynamics engineer/ doctoral candidate David Ancalle at the Georgia Tech Research Institute had been spending time listening to mostly farts and urine working from a hypothesis that cancerous growths in the rectum would change the shape of the walls thereby affecting acoustics of wind making its way out. Basically he was trying to figure out how to spot cancer by listening for changes in your fart sounds. Not sure what peeing had to do with that, I suspect it was the gateway drug for a student of fluid dynamics.

Unbelievably, there was more than one person interested in listening to the sounds of excrement to identify disease. Ancalle joined other researchers at GRTI to figure out how to adapt toilets to identify cholera outbreaks by listening to diarrhea. Yep. Every day he watched videos or listened to recordings of diarrhea.. it’s all very worthy and will save lives, but wow I’m grateful it’s not me. Anyhoo, the team posited that they could program AI algorithm to identify the typical sounds and spot their abnormal bad news variants

So Ancalle, our fluid dynamics doctoral candidate, got together with Maia Gatlin, the aerospace engineer. These two powerhouses of physics education dedicated their time to creating a machine that is the stuff of dreams to an aspiring inventor: valves, tubes, pumps, nozzles, dials, and a couple of 2 liter soda bottles (think Caratacus Potts of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fame with better funding). What does it do? Why it replicates the sounds of farting, peeing and pooing of course! It is titled Synthetic Human Acoustic Reproduction Testing, probably better known by its acronym, S.H.A.R.T.

See. It is perfectly possible to be a brilliantly clever adult, help save lives, and still be fabulously childish.

Thus far the team has managed to accurately reproduce the sound of males urinating (never remotely cared about this before but now I do wonder: how does that differ from the sounds of females urinating, and if a male were to sit whilst urinating, would the sound then be the same as a female urinating? Or does the exit tunnel make a difference to the sound?). S.H.A.R.T. will eventually be used to program sensors to recognize an entire symphony of human waste products, odes to numbers 1 and 2, and all the other more alarming numbers.

The entire venture gives me joy. If I ever decide to Marie Kondo my brain, this piece of knowledge might well survive the purge. I love that people who are considered -or soon to be considered once they finish their doctorates- experts in fields of academia that can be intimidating are spending their days engaged in an activity that kindergartners would not only understand, but relish with maniacal giggling.

One last thought to leave you with. Ancalle and Gatlin began designing S.H.A.R.T. by sorting through publicly available audio and video of excretions, capturing the frequency spectrum from each, and feeding it to a machine-learning algorithm. Did you spot it? The phrase “publicly available”. Where are they finding this stuff, and who the hell is making the content?! Don’t know about the rest of you but I immediately assume that they’ve spent months watching XXX rated sites that the tech savvy would view in a private browser window, scrolling through reams of fetish videos. What effect does that have on a person? Has the joy of snacking whilst working been forever lost to them? If you know the answers, please do share.


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