November 17, 2018
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What’s that squeak? Mysteries of the Pickering Square ‘bubble,’ revealed

By the end of summer, work will begin on the first phase of renovations to Pickering Square in downtown Bangor, including moving the parking garage entrance and sprucing up the landscape.

As renovations progress and the square itself is potentially dramatically redesigned, some of the proposed changes could affect one of the oddest phenomenons in a town chock full of oddities: the Pickering Square “bubble.”

For those unfamiliar, the bubble phenomenon occurs when you walk toward the center of the brick circle that is the plaza in Pickering Square and clap. Once you get about 10 feet away from the center, a very weird thing starts to happen to the clapping noise: a high-pitched “squeak” or “ping” sound starts to accompany each clap.

Pickering Square isn’t the only place where this happens. Similarly shaped brick plazas all over the world, including Purdue University in Indiana, Ursinus College outside Philadelphia and in the town of Ilfracombe in the United Kingdom, all have the squeak.

A number of theories abound regarding why the squeak happens. Some say it’s because of the placement of the buildings surrounding the square. Some believe there’s a pipe or other empty space beneath the surface of the square that causes the sound.

The most likely reason lies in the bricks themselves.

Two students at James Madison University in Virginia — where there’s also a bubble — wrote a research paper on the phenomenon. “Architectural Acoustic Oddities,” published in 2015, documented a thing called “repetition pitch,” which can be heard in certain staircases and brick plazas.

Essentially, when an observer near one of those structures produces a percussive white noise sound — i.e., a clap — a high-pitched sound can be heard. In order to make that sound, the brick plazas must have a “periodic” structure, meaning the bricks are laid out in a repeating pattern. As the sound created by the observer reverberates out, it reflects back from the small indentations between the bricks. The sound is heard by the human ear as a high-pitched “squeak” or a “ping” — scientists call it a repetition pitch.

According to the city planner’s office, the current configuration of Pickering Square dates back to late 1990, when it was updated during a larger overhaul of the square and the garage. City planner Sean Gambrel said archives indicate that the brickwork was installed in October 1990. Before then, the square was covered in pavement.

If the repetition pitch theory is true, then the bubble has only existed for the past 28 years. That’s plenty of time for it to have spawned several local urban legends.

Jerika Chasse, who earlier this week was sitting with her young son in Pickering Square after hopping off the bus, said she has heard an urban legend about the square: If you clap three times in the exact center of the circle, you’ll end up living in Bangor for the rest of your life.

“It’s just a myth,” she said. “But I’m still here.”

Though there have been no official designs drawn up or decisions made regarding what ultimately will happen with the full redesign of Pickering Square and the bus depot, if the repeating, “periodic” pattern of the bricks is changed or removed, there’s a likelihood the squeak would disappear with it.

If you’ve never experienced the bubble yourself, we recommend heading to downtown Bangor and trying it soon — after all, we don’t know how much longer it will be there.

Don’t worry: nobody will look at you strangely if you suddenly starting walking and clapping.

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