A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the story with the Taos hum?

December 18, 1998

Dear Cecil:

What's the story with the mysterious hum in Taos, New Mexico? I remember it was a popular subject among screwballs and scientists with nothing better to do in the early 90s, but I haven't heard much about it since. Is it a seismic phenomenon? Alien signals? Why can only certain people hear it and not others?

Dear Toke:

Little Ed forwarded your letter with the note, "What does the hum hum? If it was, like, 'Mandy' or something, this would tell us something fundamental about the cosmos. And scary." That Ed, always the alarmist.

We alerted the New Mexico contingent of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Ian and Jill. They reported as follows: Neither Ian nor Jill had heard the hum, but Ian thought his mother had. On inquiring, however, he learned that it wasn't his mother, it was a friend of his mother's, and said friend had heard it in Los Alamos, not Taos. But think about it: what's in Los Alamos? The atom bomb lab! Whoa. There is (of course) the Taos Hum Homepage at www.eskimo.com/~billb/hum/hum.html. Perusing said page, Ian found that major hum foci include Calgary and, um, Detroit. Ian, listen. You think Taos hum, you think: resonating with the deep vibe of the universe! Whereas with the Detroit hum you think: too much truck traffic. Stick with Taos. With the excuse of doing an errand for her job, Jill went to Taos to investigate the hum firsthand. She heard no hum, though she did note an unusually high incidence of Steve Miller singing about the pompatus of love on the radio. She asked some guy (admittedly in Santa Fe) if he'd heard the hum. Guy said no, but he'd heard about a hum at Richardson Bay in Tiburon, California, that turned out to be fish mating. Great, says I. F**king fish. Memo to Jill: The locality of interest is Taos! T-A-O-S. Write this down. Jill decided she should ask a Taos Indian about the hum, in case it figures in some ancient pueblo tradition. She drove out to the bridge over the Rio Grande gorge. The wind whistling through this bridge, her coworker Mark had previously informed her, is the source of the Taos hum. Jill knows that everything Mark says is total crap, but figured she had to start somewhere. There was a Taos tribal police car on the bridge because, as it turned out, somebody had thrown a dead body off it. Jill figured this was the perfect moment to ask the Native American cop about the Taos hum: "He said, 'Oh, it's an old, old story.' Bingo! I asked, 'How old?' I wanted some earth-mother-original-creation-hum kind of myth. He said, 'Oh, ten years or so.' Oh, well. He told me he can't hear it and he doesn't know any Indian people who can. He stopped short of telling me it's a bunch of New Age white people's crap." By now Jill was really getting into this and sent me a pile of clippings about the hum from the Albuquerque Journal. Seems the hum was first brought to public attention in 1992 by Taos residents who claimed they'd been hearing it for more than a year. Nine of 12 locals contacted by the paper said they'd heard it. The hum was said to sound like the distant idling of a diesel truck (a low rumble, in other words), and was very annoying. Theories about its source included "UFOs, spiritual rebirth, faulty sewage plants, secret underground mining, high-voltage power lines, and weapons testing."

The New Mexico congressional delegation--you remember what a big help they were investigating the alien spacecraft at Roswell--decided to harness the vast resources of the federal government to find out what caused the hum. However, the Pentagon denied all, and tests by scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories and at the University of New Mexico (your tax dollars at work!) failed to detect the hum's source. A survey of 7,000 Taos-area residents found that only 2 percent had heard it. You're thinking: you could probably find 2 percent who think they've got microchips implanted in their brains! Hmm. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Sorry, thought I heard something.

Anyway, UNM hearing researcher James Kelly tells me they've done enough investigation to know this is more than just wacky Taos residents eating funny mushrooms. For one thing, tests show all the hum hearers hear pretty much the same low-frequency tone, making it unlikely they're imagining it or suffering from ordinary tinnitus. Research continues. Sure, it's all in their heads. The question is, what's "it"?

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