The Center of the Universe in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a concrete circle, 30 inches in diameter. The surrounding sidewalk sports a spiral pattern of bricks and concrete, totaling 8 feet in diameter. It is not the décor of the sidewalk that draws in tourists however, but rather the acoustics heard by visitors who stand in the center of the circle. In a widely misunderstood acoustic anomaly, sounds emitted at the center of the concrete circle are echoed back to the person standing there, but are inaudible to anyone else. For those standing in the circle, sounds made by persons outside of the circle seem distorted and are hard to hear. Even the drop of a pin inside the inner circle sounds like a loud crash to one who is standing there.
Tulsa is not alone in proclaiming itself as the Center of the Universe, there are at least 16 similarly named sites in North America alone. Nor is it alone in having this archaeoacoustic phenomenon. Several such sites are found around the world, all similar in that they are designed with stone and have surrounding stone walls. Archaeoacoustics goes as far back as Stonehenge, and some historians speculate that cave paintings were inspired by the acoustic effects of cave walls, a naturally occurring version of this same phenomenon.
History: The span of the pedestrian bridge in downtown Tulsa upon which the Center of the Universe is located was originally built in the 1930s, as the Boston Avenue Vehicular Bridge, to allow traffic to safely cross the railroad tracks. The decorative brick pattern on the sidewalk was built in 1983 when the bridge had to be replaced, having been damaged by a fire in a warehouse underneath. The new bridge design was intended as a metaphor, connecting north with south Tulsa, however architects on the project, from the firm of HTB Incorporated and the Urban Design Group, claim that the mysterious sonic effect was unintentional. Conspiracy theories abound. Some think the site represents a vortex of energy, and the colliding of cosmic vibrations. Others think the site represents a portal to an alternate dimension, or another universe. Some speculate the hollow-sounding echo effect stems from the steel expansion joint that bisects the circle on the bridge, or that it perhaps echoes off the nearby 60-foot sculpture, also made of steel. Most likely, the effect is due to the parabolic reflectivity of the low semi-circular cement planters surrounding the site. The strange sound effects heard by the person standing in the circle stem from the time delay of the sounds waves as they bounce off the cement planters and reflect back to the speaker. However, while many scientists have studied the effect, there is no clear agreement on what exactly causes the acoustic phenomenon.
Ongoing Programs and Education: The Center of the Universe Festival, an annual music festival in downtown Tulsa, is named for this spot. The festival has taken place each July since 2013 and features primarily alternative rock, pop, and indie bands. The outdoor festival takes place at several different venues surrounding the Center of the Universe. Area art galleries are also open for free while the weekend music festival occurs. The Ms. Center of the Universe pageant is also named for the site. This annual Tulsa beauty pageant crowns the woman who best represents the soul of Tulsa. Known as an anti-pageant, the tongue-in-cheek contest is hosted by the Nightingale Theater, Tulsa’s “home for unconventional entertainment.”
What’s Nearby: Enhancing the mystique of the Center of the Universe is the nearby Artificial Cloud, a 60-foot tall totem-like sculpture made by Native American artist, Robert Haozous. According to the artist, the sculpture is a commentary on technology. The cloud atop the totem represents “threatened hope.” The totem itself is meant to slowly corrode over time, a constant litmus test on the effect of pollutants in the air. The Center of the Universe is located near the plaza of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, previously the Union Train Depot. After playing with the acoustics at the Center of the Universe, visitors might be interested in visiting the Hall of Fame to celebrate acoustics of a different type.
West of the Union Depot, in the center of the pedestrian bridge from Archer Street to First Street, over the train tracks
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