Mysterious Low-Level Noise Destroys Peace, Serenity of Taos Residents : New Mexico: Scientists’ search for source of hum has been fruitless, though one heard sound himself. Some victims suspect a secret military project.


TAOS, N.MC. Grams hears it: a constant, irritating hum that deprives her of sleep and depletes her energy.

Steven Walters hears it: a low, throbbing sound that robs him of the precious quiet he sought when he left the city.

Robert Faurie hears it: an unnatural, generator-like noise at the edge of what his ear can pick up.


It’s the Taos hum, a phenomenon fit for a supermarket tabloid, a sound--or is it?--that not everyone hears and no one has identified.

“You know how it is when you’re about to go to sleep and one of those big black flies, or a mosquito, is in your room? Imagine having that every single night and not being able to swat it. It makes you crazy,” Grams said.

When she first heard the sound two years ago, she assumed it was coming from something in her old, adobe house on the outskirts of town. But she couldn’t find the source.

She was horrified to discover that when she went camping 30 miles away, she still could hear it.

About a year ago, at a potluck supper at her son’s school, a stranger asked Grams whether she, too, heard a hum.

“I almost started crying,” Grams recalled. “It’s such a relief to know you’re not crazy and not alone, and that it’s real.”


Experts don’t doubt that Grams and others are bothered by something. A team of scientists and engineers spent a week in Taos recently at the behest of two congressmen, using sophisticated equipment to measure acoustic, electromagnetic and seismic signals. They found no ready answer.

“Right now we’re not close to being able to say anything. It’s disappointing to all of us,” said Joe Mullins, chairman of the mechanical engineering department at the University of New Mexico and leader of the team from Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories and the U.S. Air Force’s Phillips Laboratory.

Based on initial observations, the team believes it’s probably not an acoustical signal--that is, not a sound--that hearers are picking up.

“If it were, then one of the microphones would have sensed it,” said team member Horace Poteet. The team used conventional laboratory microphones as well as a specially built microphone that detects low-frequency sound.

Poteet, a physicist whose work involves nuclear test-ban treaty verification, heard the Taos hum while he was there.

In fact, he said, he’s been hearing a noise for a while at his Albuquerque home, about 130 miles south of Taos. He hasn’t found it particularly bothersome; he describes it as sounding like a diesel truck idling in the distance.


Seven hearers who simulated the sound for the investigators using a signal generator and a loudspeaker selected low-range frequencies, from 33 to 80 hertz. The range of human hearing is between 20 and 20,000 hertz.

The Taos hearers are confident the problem isn’t with their ears because they can mask the sound with other noises. And if they get far enough away from Taos, they don’t hear it.

At first, U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) was inclined to write off the complaints as “some of my more colorful Taos constituents.” The town of 4,000 in a spectacular setting in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains has long been known as a haven for artists, alternative-lifestyle seekers and the offbeat.

But now he is convinced the problem is real, and has asked a staff member from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to investigate.

“It’s not a figment of anyone’s imagination,” Richardson said. “I think there is a hum, a noise of some kind.”

So does Walters, a musician who moved to Taos from Portland, Ore., in search of silence.

“Every time I become quiet, the sound is right there, throbbing,” he said. “The best word I’ve come up with for it is ‘insidious.’ ”


So do more than 100 people who Bob and Catanya Saltzman say have contacted them since the Saltzmans announced they were hearing the sound.

Dozens of those people also responded to the Saltzmans’ informal survey, complaining of headaches, anxiety, sleeplessness, shortness of breath, balance problems and other ailments, the couple said.

Catanya Saltzman first heard the sound in May, 1991; her photographer husband heard it two weeks later. They have heard it almost continuously since--including on occasional visits to Santa Fe, 70 miles to the south.

They describe it as a low, grinding, pulsating noise, with a whine overlying it. It disrupts their sleep, and Catanya Saltzman, a dancer, said it affects her balance and concentration. The couple spent two months in South Carolina recently to escape it.

The Saltzmans speculate the sound emanates from a secret, defense-related project. They fear it may not be noise at all, but electromagnetic waves.

The defense-project theory got a boost in February when Richardson--a member of the intelligence committee--said he believed the Department of Defense probably was the culprit.


A Defense Department official has emphatically denied it to a U.S. Senate subcommittee; Richardson isn’t convinced.

The more the Taos sound is publicized, the more reports surface from other places about similar, bothersome noises.

“I personally have gotten complaints from California, Washington, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin--and I know of one in Texas,” said Mullins of the University of New Mexico. “Whether it’s the same sound or noise, we have no way of knowing.”