Professor James Lin’s office is tucked away in one of the brutalist architectural buildings on the University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus. Visiting him there feels like you’re stepping back in time to the Soviet era.
It’s fitting. Lin pioneered research there that could help explain recent mysterious sound attacks on U.S. Embassy workers in Cuba and China — bizarre events that seem straight out of a Cold War spy movie.
“It’s all possible,” said Lin, an emeritus engineering professor.
Lin has studied something called the “microwave auditory effect.” That’s a phenomenon where pulsed microwave frequencies create sounds directly inside the human head.
Earlier this year, Lin hypothesized in a scientific journal that microwaves were weaponized to hurt more than two dozen embassy workers in Cuba in late 2016. This month, The New York Times reported that microwave sound weapons were now a main theory explaining how these diplomats were targeted.
“None of those is a surprise to me,” Lin said. “It doesn’t take a huge collection of instruments to do it.”
Usually, we hear sounds through our ears. But with microwaves, the sound wave is converted inside the head from a microwave pulse. It impinges on the tissues, according to Lin, and creates a vibration inside the head. The vibration becomes sound, and the sound comes from inside a person’s head.
Last summer, Lin read about embassy workers and their family members in Cuba who reported hearing loud tones, chirping, and buzzes at their homes and hotels. It caused headaches, nausea, hearing loss, and brain damage. When they covered their ears, it reportedly didn’t reduce the noise volume.
The U.S. government removed many of the diplomats from Cuba as the FBI investigated. Last week, NBC News reported government officials believe Russia is behind the attacks. But there’s not enough evidence to formally accuse the country.
Lin thinks there’s a clear scientific explanation: microwaves.
“That’s the ideal mechanism for this to happen” he said. Lin said it’s possible to direct a microwave beam at a specific person using commercial radar technology.
“A person can be five feet away, but if the beam isn’t targeting that person, [they] will have no sensation of it,” he explained. “But the targeted individual will hear it.”
The Associated Press released a recording of what some of the embassy workers in Cuba heard. But Lin isn’t convinced that recording is exactly what the diplomats heard. He should know. He used to study the effect on himself in the 1970s.
“There’s probably no one else who has been exposed to microwave pulse induced auditory effect more than I [have] in the entire country,” Lin said with a mischievous smile.
Lin never heard microwave pulses at levels high enough to hurt himself. And he isn’t involved in this FBI investigation, so he hasn’t spoken directly with the American diplomats affected.
Over the years, Lin said he’s been contacted by people in intelligence who believe they were subjected to some kind of microwave sound weapon. He also got a call from a British television show planning an episode that included a sound weapon attack.
But now, with the reports out of Cuba, it seems a television plot may have become real life. As the saying goes: Truth is often stranger than fiction.