As part of our celebration of the nominees in the Favourite Radio Personality category, we thought we’d take a look at some of the things we’ve done with this remarkable technology and what it might say about us.
Radio – we all know it. It’s how you get your news, your traffic updates. It’s how you find out which artist is currently at the top of the charts and which formerly-disgraced artist is making a comeback now that sufficient time has passed for the world to collectively breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Oh, thank goodness – we can like them, again.” Radio, after all, is everywhere. We’ve all heard it.
Except we haven’t. One can’t hear radio. It’s light, except not the cool kind, because we can’t even see it because it doesn’t fall into the handy range of visible light, nor the psychedelic frequencies of the ultraviolet. Thankfully, it’s not as dangerous as X-rays, but – on the other hand – it doesn’t heat up your leftover pasta from last night, either.
That’s not to say it isn’t useful, though. We can manipulate it, which means we can encode data into it, beam it through space (or air, as it happens) to a receiver hooked up to an apparatus that can extract that information.
What we think of when we say we “listened” to the radio is that we listened to the sound that was reconstructed after that information was extracted and pushed through a speaker coil.
(For all you fans of Contact, this means that your favourite movie opens with an egregious scientific error when Jodie Foster’s character is listening to the information coming from a radio antenna. That’s not how radio astronomy works. Sorry. Still a good flick, though.)
It’s a super-useful way of transmitting information: it’s fast (being light and all), has relatively high bandwidth, and can travel enormous distances when given a sufficiently powerful transmitter and a relatively unencumbered path of travel.
This is why we use it for radio astronomy: the universe is big (so a speedy signal is useful) and empty. We also use it to search for alien intelligence on the basis that it is so useful that some distant Romulan (feel free to substitute your favourite alien species from your favourite flavour of sci-fi) would almost certainly use it for communication purposes.
We’ve been doing that, too. Since our radio transmitters were powerful enough to burp their transmissions into space, we’ve been blaring those signals to our nearest neighbours in the galaxy.
We’ve been doing this for about 90 years or so (experts disagree on exactly how strong a transmitter would need to be), which means our earliest transmissions have travelled about 90 lightyears.
Which is a long way away, to be sure, but not that long. As a percentage of the Milky Way’s diameter, it comes to a paltry 0.085%. To put that into perspective, that’s like trying to beam a signal from one corner of South Africa to another and – after almost a century – managing to transmit it a grand total of 155 meters. Space – as it turns out – is rather spacious.
Let’s say – for the sake of telling a good yarn – that our immediate galactic neighbourhood is positively littered with intelligent alien life. It’s not that unreasonable. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the surest sign of the existence of intelligent alien life is that none of it has ever tried to contact us.
Anyway – assuming intelligent life has been listening to our radio transmissions – what were some of the first things we treated them to? For the sake of brevity, we will limit this article to three of the very earliest transmissions capable of travelling into space.
It’s a weird mixture of stuff, to be honest. Some good, some pretty dismal (the aforementioned fans of Contact know what’s coming). You’ll notice that 1936 falls neatly into our 90-year window, which is something of a mixed blessing. 1936 was the year of the Berlin Olympics, an event stage-managed by none other than Adolf Hitler during what can only be described as his “irritable period”.
Hitler, of course, used radio to spout his delusional invective to everyone willing (and unwilling) to listen, and it’s not great that his off-the-rails ranting would be among the earliest advertisements of our species to the cosmos. Would you think this was a planet worthy of your time and advanced technology?
It’s not all bad, though. The 1936 Summer Olympics was also the setting for possibly the best flex in sporting and political history. In the face of Hitler’s insistence on the existence of a superior race, one Jesse Owens – an African American athlete – proceeded to absolutely trounce his “superior” competition and win a total of four gold medals, in the process being one of the few human beings who could ever claim the honour of having made Hitler shut up for a bit.
As simple addition will tell you, the next year was 1937 – also, not an awesome one. Actually, that’s not true – it was a year like any other year, full of ups and downs, but there is one particular low moment that makes 1937 stand out – the Hindenburg disaster.
The largest dirigible ever built, the airship was the pride of Nazi Germany (those guys, again). On 6 May, it attempted to dock in New Jersey. And then – all too suddenly – the Hindenburg ceased to exist.
Nobody knows exactly the cause of what happened, but we do know what happened. A spark. The airship was being held aloft by an absolutely massive quantity of hydrogen – the lightest gas in the universe, which is why it was chosen. Unfortunately – unlike helium – it is not a noble gas.
It reacts. Violently. When that spark touched those first few molecules of helium, they combusted – spectacularly. Combustion is an exothermic process, so it releases heat, and the fire spread through the entire reservoir of hydrogen in fractions of a second. Thirty-five people died.
The moment was described on radio – live, we might add – by one Herbert Morrison, whose cries of, “Oh, the humanity!” were transmitted by radio to a shocked audience. Frankly, Morrison was shouting so loudly we doubt that he needed the radio to be heard.
The very next year – 1938, for those of you paying attention – saw some of the North American continents in total panic. One might forgive them for this, of course – we’ve just spent a substantial number of paragraphs describing matters that involved Nazis – but this was a different sort of matter altogether. This was entertainment.
The man at the centre of the affair was one Orson Welles, a towering figure in the world of entertainment. His film Citizen Kane stands as one of the greatest works on celluloid ever made. It was a stint on radio, however, that is the subject of this section. In 1938, he broadcast his adaptation of The War of the Worlds, the seminal novel by HG Wells from 1898. Being a master of his craft,
Welles adapted the story to fit with the medium – radio. After an introductory monologue (taken from the introduction of the novel, which – in this writer’s opinion – stands as one of the best introductions to a work of fiction, ever), the programme took on the format of a regular evening radio broadcast periodically interrupted by news bulletins describing “explosions” on Mars, an object falling to Earth and – with some escalation – people being massacred by a “heat ray”.
Listeners who tuned into the show late and missed the introduction had no context, here. They were just hearing what they thought were actual news reports of unexplained phenomena in space, objects falling to earth, and all-out war with a technologically superior enemy. Cue panic.
And outrage. In the days that followed, people criticised the news-bulletin format as being deliberately deceptive, demanding that the Federal Communications Commission (the American regulatory body for radio, et.al.) enforce new regulations that would prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
Which is a pity, since – as a story-telling device – the format was a clear success. Indeed, it has become a case study in using the medium of communication as a plot point in driving good fiction. Thankfully, the FCC refused to take any punitive action.
These are not the only signals we’ve ever launched into space. Far from it. In fact, some of our very close neighbours might be getting down to Billie Jean or All The Single Ladies, or listening to broadcasts by Donald Trump. So – a mixed bag, in other words. Years since the invention of film, television, and the internet, radio and the things we transmit with it remain a central part of our civilisation’s day-to-day life.