Berkeley lab scientist receives MacArthur ‘genius grant’ for audio restoration works

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/Courtesy
Experimental physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Carl Haber started work with audio after hearing an NPR report about it.

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A scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory won a MacArthur “genius grant” on Wednesday for his efforts to restore historic audio recordings.

Carl Haber, an experimental physicist at the Berkeley lab, won the award for his research on recovering century-old sound files to make them playable. He was one of 24 chosen this year to become a MacArthur Fellow, an honor for which scholars who have demonstrated originality and dedication to their work are nominated.

Haber is the fourth scientist from the Berkeley lab to be named a MacArthur Fellow, according to the lab’s website. He regularly collaborates with both the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress to find recordings to repair.

“The whole thing is a bit of a shock,” Haber said. “Even if you’re doing something great, (receiving the award) is still so unlikely, because there are many other people you can think of who could be nominated. You hope that your research is innovative, but you never know if that’s how other people view it.”

Haber has worked with antique, damaged sound files for more than a decade, ever since he heard an NPR report about delicate audio the Library of Congress could not play.

While doing physics research and using light to measure the shapes of objects, Haber discovered a noncontact method to restore sound using light optics instead of tactile instruments.

Haber’s method allows for the recovery of previously unusable sound files without causing any damage to the audio. He takes high-resolution images of the surface of the material on which the sound was recorded and then converts the images into digital audio, which can be played on most electronic devices.

“This isn’t some exotic laboratory sound that can only be heard in these labs,” said Carlene Stephens, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “We can hear these voices that have been lost anywhere in the world, and that’s thrilling. A door has been opened, and on the other side are people, places, things and ideas we didn’t have the imagination to know existed.”

Haber’s work has made it possible for extremely rare and old audio recordings to be heard for the first time. His method has been used to play a wax-and-cardboard disc of Alexander Graham Bell speaking, as well as the oldest known recording of a person’s voice, dating to 1860 — even earlier than Thomas Edison’s first sound clip.

With the award, Haber will receive $625,000, dispersed over five years, to continue his research. The money will be used to travel to foreign countries to recover the lost voices of other cultures, he said.

Haber is poised to revolutionize the preservation of rare, damaged and deteriorating sound recordings of immense value to our cultural heritage, the MacArthur Foundation stated on its website.

Claire Chiara covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].