“Personnel gather at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 29, 2017. The U.S. State Department cut the embassy’s staff by half in the wake of mysterious health problems that injured more than 20 people associated with the U.S. embassy. Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images
Weaponizing sound isn’t a new idea. Police turned a sound cannon on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and again at demonstrators against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Sonic devices have been used as deterrents by cruise ships against pirates and by shopkeepers against teenagers. (You can read our full article about the Mosquito alarm geared at teenagers if you’re curious.)
In 2016, officials at the U.S. embassy in Cuba began to complain about headaches, nausea, and hearing and memory loss after hearing an annoying, high-pitched noise. Enough diplomats (and their relatives) got sick that the U.S. eventually pulled half their staff from the embassy and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats, but it’s still not clear what happened in Havana.
Is Someone Using Sonic Weapons in Cuba? Ben, Noel and Matt leave no stone unturned during this Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know podcast episode to find out.
Sounds emitted at a higher or lower frequency than the human ear is capable of hearing can cause interesting effects in our bodies. Doctors commonly turn to ultrasound, or high-frequency sounds beyond human hearing, to map a pregnant woman’s stomach and create a picture of what’s going on inside the womb. Ultrasound also can help to break up kidney stones inside the body into more passable pieces. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that "ultrasonic noise has little effect on general health unless there is direct body contact with a radiating ultrasonic source." Infrasound, or low-frequency sounds below human hearing, has been associated with causing people to hallucinate, to feel unsettled or watched, and to experience headaches. British engineer and ghost hunter Vic Tandy famously wrote a paper explaining that when people experienced ghostly phenomena, they actually were being exposed to infrasound.
In short, sound waves can physically affect us, leading opportunistic militaries around the world to wonder how they can weaponize those effects. However, making a sonic weapon that could cause lethal harm would require a huge amount of power to operate properly, as Seth Horowitz noted in Popular Science.
So did someone weaponize sound in Cuba? The short answer is no one knows for sure. Investigators in both Cuba and the United States have found that the story about the high-pitched sound and the subsequent symptoms defy the physics of sound itself, as Scientific American notes,, and Cuban officials have postulated that the diplomats were suffering from some kind of mass hysteria or collective psychological illness. Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between the two countries continue to worsen as the investigation continues. Could some person or group from the United States be behind this, perhaps trying to sabotage U.S.-Cuba relations? Or is this just the result of some faulty surveillance equipment causing adverse effects in diplomats? Listen closely to Ben, Noel and Matt to find out more about sonic weapons and what could be causing the mystery in Cuba in this podcast.
Now That’s Interesting
As of March 2, 2018, the State Department was still urging U.S. citizens to "reconsider" travel to Cuba due to "attacks targeting U.S. Embassy Havana employees resulting in the drawdown of embassy staff."