Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Imagine that all we knew of the ocean was that it had waves. To a beachcomber the ocean is vast and empty with only a smattering of shells on the sand and the occasional ripple or wake on its surface to hint at the invisible world beneath. The astronomer Carl Sagan hinted at the parallel between the sea and our understanding of the Universe beyond our world when he said that the "surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean." Hidden from our sight, betrayed by just an array of faint and feeble stars, there is a cosmos out there as full of unseen beauty as the most rich and abundant terrestrial ocean. Honor Harger explores this unseen world in her TEDTalk of the beauty revealed by the signals of extraterrestrial radio waves in which our planet is awash.
As a young radio astronomer I learned early on that every time human beings have explored the world with new senses we have discovered new and amazing phenomena. In 1835 the French philosopher Auguste Comte declared that because the stars were so far away we could never hope to learn anything about them beyond their existence and size. Fourteen years later their light was passed through a prism producing a rainbow of colors, upon which were superimposed dark absorption lines that revealed the stars' chemical composition. We use these same absorption lines today to not only determine stellar compositions, but temperature, motion, rotation and age. And, in perhaps the most profound discovery of all, these lines reveal to us that nearly every star we see in the sky may be host to a system of unseen planets like our own sun. We now know of more than 800 confirmed planets orbiting around stars other than our own.
Ms. Harger in her TEDTalk goes deeper still into the invisible depths our Universe harbors. The visible light we see and use to measure the spectral lines of stars is just a tiny fraction of all the different types of electromagnetic radiation we call light. Light is simply a wave of oscillating electric and magnetic fields. The only difference between the color blue and the color red is the length of the wave that makes up the light. Red light is nothing more than an electromagnetic wave twice as long as blue. Longer than red is a vast range of waves that we call infrared, microwave and eventually radio. While visible light has waves that are literally microscopic, radio waves can be as long as a river, while shorter than blue is a vast sea of ever smaller wavelengths from ultraviolet to X-rays and gamma. Like the mass of ice hiding beneath the tip of an iceberg at sea, none of these forms of light are visible to us, but tuning in to their special part of the spectrum has allowed us to discover the most profound mysteries of our Universe.
Infrared astronomy reveals the dark expanses between the stars are awash in enormous clouds of gas, dust and organic molecules out of which the stars, and, five billion years ago, we were formed. X-ray astronomy reveals super-heated gas being sucked into the maws of previously hidden black holes, great monsters many times the mass of our own sun. And radio astronomy, like Harger describes, reveals the presence of rapidly rotating neutron stars, the crackle of electrons whirling among the magnetic fields at the center of our galaxy, and the faint, leftover hiss of the Big Bang's fireball almost 14 billion years ago.
And best of all, someday soon (I hope) the ever-present background murmur of interstellar radio noise will give way to a faint signal of other intelligences, on their own hidden islands around other stars, reaching out to bridge the enormous ocean of space between.
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