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Poem for Karl Guthe Jansky

uploaded: Fri, Dec 21, 2007 @ 3:58 AM
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Poem for Karl Jansky

If you listen to the sounds on the air, you hear endless static. My
father’s old tube-type shortwave, a vintage unit even in my childhood,allowed one to roll a knob and hear the heterodyne theremin wonder of sound slicing through the static. I used to listen to Radio Copenhagen
on that old short-wave, where innovative music would slice through the noise. I used to strain to hear the music through the sounds and the static. As the years went on, I began to hear the music in the sounds and static.

Karl Jansky, from Oklahoma, held a master’s in physics, and was one of those regular guys with a gift for science that existed long before words like “geek” dismissed and described them. He was a hockey star in college, and the county table tennis champion in the New Jersey county where he worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories.

We live in a world today of high-flown theoreticians and knowers of
things, some of whom “know” theoretically things as yet unprovable. Karl Jansky was a man who faced a problem, and in solving it, learned how distant objects generate static and sound.

Bell labs asked him to study the factors that affected the operation of transoceanic radiotelephone circuits. They were plagued with static,and he wanted to find out why. His goal was not to win tenure so that he could pontificate to undergraduates, nor to seek some higher glory. His goal was to help transmissions be clearer.

By 1932, he presented his paper “Directional Studies of Atmospherics at High Frequences”, in which he found the static was from local thunderstorms, from distant thunderstorms, and from an unknown source far away.

In life we are sometimes called to figure out the unknown source far
away. I think that music is one way we try to express that source.
For one person, the source is Providence, for another the source is something within. Ee try to find the source of the static, and to live and breathe and bathe in and understand it. Sometimes we find the source is the static, and we live in sound as sound.

Karl Jansky discovered the third source of the static he studied, on a 14.6 meter rotatable mirror came from outer space. When he realized the possibilities, he taught himself some advanced astronomy. By 1933, he presented a paper which explained that we are bombarded with extra-terrestrial
sound and static.

Karl presented his findings, and was published and presented in forums academic and popular. Yet the world of 1933 and the world of the 21st Century were alike in at least one respect. Bell Laboratories turned down his request to do more extensive research using a better receiving device, as they did not see the
money in it to solve their static problem.

On the other hand, we live in a world of artificial boundaries and
over-categorized rules about intellectual loyalties in both science and creative endeavors. Some imagine that nothing good can be done which is also commercial. Others imagine that we must leave science, like music, to the most highly-trained professionals working with the latest theories.
I personally believe that ideas arise in all sorts of contexts, and those who live in labels rather than in solving problems miss the point, a bit.

Karl Jansky, table-tennis champion of a county in New Jersey and corporate drudge, discovered what we now know as radio telescopy. We understand the world a bit better, and we pick up sounds and statics from across the universe, because Karl Jansky realized that in the middle of the Milky Way, natural phenomena emitted signals which affected transatlantic radiotelephony.

I wish I could tell you that Karl Jansky received his Nobel prize, or visited the Very Large Array, or went on to follow up on the
discoveries he documented in his 1933 paper, “Electric Disturbances
Apparently of Extraterrestrial Origin”. As his brother, an academic and radio enginner wrote, Karl Jansky performed “in effect a wedding ceremony. It weds the science of astronomy and the science of radio and electronic engineering, tying them together by inseparable bonds”.

Yet Karl Jansky never lived to see the grandchildren of the infant
science he made possible. He died at 44 in Red Bank in New Jersey, of a stroke and kidney disease. His son David used to play on the old 14.6 research antenna as a merry-go-round. David gives talks sometimes about his father, to bodies of scientists who built a new world of discovery from
his father’s papers in the 1930s.

Karl Jansky has a small memorial in his home town in New Jersey—a
scale model of his antenna. The unit used by radio astronomers for the strength (or flux density) of radio sources is now called the jansky.

The jansky is equal to one-hundredth of one-trillionth of a trillionth of a watt per square meter per hertz. I cannot imagine a more fitting bit of afterlife than to be so remembered.

I think that Karl Guthe Jansky deserves a poem. This modest effort is my attempt to write
a tone poem—in sound and static.

My undergraduate degree was in physics, though I work as an attorney and have roughly enough science depth to survive the average dinner party (assuming I attended any). Yet it’s a constant fascination to me the similarities between the explorations in science and the explorations creative people in other disciplines, including music, undertake.

There are sounds in science and in nature about which more are learned every day. We who make music are manipulators of sounds and creators of nature.

I like the image of Karl Guthe Jansky, searching for static, and
finding sounds emitting from Sagittarius. Perhaps we should all make music with an ear to the sounds and static all around us, in search of the alien and the real.

A shout-out to John Ingram’s “Threshold Volume 5” samples collection, from http://www.intelligentmachi... whose sample “choir of the unnecessary” is one of the voices that powers my melody.

"Poem for Karl Guthe Jansky"
by gurdonark

2007 - Licensed under
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