The @mathematicsprof tweet above links to a paper, by Carolyn Gordon and David Webb and published in American Scientist in 1996, that’s about one of those questions that’s both mathematically interesting and of obvious everyday interest. The question was originally put, in nice compact and real-world-relevant form, in 1966 by Mark Kac: can one hear the shape of a drum?
At first glance the answer may seem, “of course” — you can hear the difference between musical instruments by listening to them. You might need experience, but, after all, you’re not going to confuse a bass drum from a bongo even if you haven’t been in the music store much. At second glance, why would Kac bother asking the question if the answer were obvious? He didn’t need the attention. He had, among other things, his work in ferromagnetism to be proud of (and I should write about that some.) And could you tell one bass drum from another?
The question ties into what’s known as “spectral theory”: given a complicated bundle of information what can you say about the source? One metaphorical inspiration here is studying the spectrum of a burning compound: the wavelengths of light emitted by it give you information about what elements go into the compound, and what their relative abundances are.
The sound of a drum is going to be a potentially complicated set of sound waves produced by the drum’s membrane itself oscillating. That membrane oscillation is going to depend, among other things, on the shape of the membrane, and that’s why we might suppose that we could tell what the shape of the drum is by the sound it makes when struck. But then it might also be that multiple different shapes could produce the exact same sound.
It took to about 1990 to get a definite answer; Gordon and Webb, along with Scott Wolpert, showed that you can get different-shaped drums that sound the same, and very nicely showed an example. In the linked article, Gordon and Webb describe some of the history of the problem and how they worked out a solution. It does require some technical terms that maybe even re-reading several times won’t help you parse, but if you’re willing to just move on past a paragraph that looks like jargon to the rest I believe you’ll find some interesting stuff out, for example, whether you could at least hear the area of a drum, even if you can’t tell what the shape is.