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Improbable research: The repetitive physics of Om

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Indian scientists wield sophisticated mathematics to dissect and analyse the traditional meditation chanting sound 'Om'.

Two Indian scientists are wielding sophisticated mathematics to dissect and analyse the traditional meditation chanting sound "Om". The Om team has published six monographs in academic journals. These plumb certain acoustic subtleties of Om, which these researchers say is "the divine sound".

Om has many variations. In a study published in the International Journal of Computer Science and Network Security, the researchers explain: "It may be very fast, several cycles per second. Or it may be slower, several seconds for each cycling of [the] Om mantra. Or it might become extremely slow, with the mmmmmm sound continuing in the mind for much longer periods but still pulsing at that slow rate. It is somewhat like one of these vibrations:




The important technical fact is that no matter what form of Om one chants at whatever speed, there is always a basic Omness to it.

Ajay Anil Gurjar and Siddharth A Ladhake published their first OM paper, Time-Frequency Analysis of Chanting Sanskrit Divine Sound "OM", in 2008 in the International Journal of Computer Science and Network Security.

Ladhake is the principal at Sipna's College of Engineering and Technology in Amravati, India. Gurjar is an assistant professor in that institution's department of electronics and telecommunication. Both specialise in electronic signal processing. They now sub-specialise in analysing the one very special signal.

In the introductory paper, Gurjar and Ladhake explain (in case there is someone unaware of the basics): "Om is a spiritual mantra, outstanding to fetch peace and calm. The entire psychological pressure and worldly thoughts are taken away by the chanting of Om mantra."

No one has explained the biophysical processes that underlie this fetching of calm and taking away of thoughts. Gurjar and Ladhake's time-frequency analysis is a tiny step along that hitherto little-taken branch of the path of enlightenment.

They apply a mathematical tool called wavelet transforms to a digital recording of a person chanting "Om". Even people with no mathematical background can appreciate, on some level, one of the blue-on-white graphs included in the monograph. This graph, the authors say, "depicts the chanting of 'Om' by a normal person after some days of chanting". The image looks like a pile of nearly identical, slightly lopsided pancakes held together with a skewer, the whole stack lying sideways on a table. To behold it is to see, if nothing else, repetition.

At the end, Gurjar and Ladhake say: "Our attentiveness and our concentration are pilfered from us by the proceedings take place around us in the world in recent times ... By this analysis we could conclude steadiness in the mind is achieved by chanting Om, hence proves the mind is calm and peace to the human subject."

Much as people chant the sound "Om" over and over again, Gurjar and Ladhake repeat much of the same analysis in their other five studies, managing each time to chip away at some slightly different mathematico-acoustical fine point.

(Thanks to Martin Gardiner for bringing the Om team to my attention.)

Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize

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