Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The great divide

As commencement exercises ended on the college quadrangle last Sunday, the graduates filed out into a milling throng of parents and friends. All at once, hundreds of cell phones came out from under gowns. "Let's meet by the tree in front of the Computer Center." "Let's meet by the fountain in front of the Library." Graduates and families found each other by phone.

How all those hundreds of overlapping signals found their target I do not know. Oh, I suppose I could figure it out if I thought about it for a few minutes. What struck me at the time was that I was walking through a sea of radiation, an invisible, inaudible cacophony of communications. And not just between those hundreds of excited families. With the right device I could have picked out of the air a thousand worldwide transmissions -- music of any genera, the Sunday exhortations of churches, news, weather, lovers arranging assignations, weeping, whispering, gnashing of teeth. Who knows, maybe mixed in with that electromagnetic clutter was a faint signal from some other part of the galaxy,

Humans have a prodigious appetite for believing in unseen worlds. Angels. Banshees. Bogies. Demons. Devils. Djinns. Fairies. Fays. Ghosts. Goblins. Incubi. Kachinas. Nixies. Phantoms. Poltergeists. Pucas. Shades. Specters. Succubi. Wraiths. To merely dip into the world's grab bag of invisible spirits. And now, having rid ourselves of the anthropomorphic presences, we find ourselves awash in imperceptible energies, voices that speak to us out of the ether.

Underline in your history books that day in 1887 when a spark jumped back and forth between two metal spheres 50 million times a second in the lab of Heinrich Hertz. Across the room a similar spark was instantly produced at the receiver. Invisible waves of electromagnetic energy had passed through space at the speed of light, confirming the prediction of james Clerk Maxwell -- a beginning for the age of radio, television, mobile phones and wireless internet, although at the time not even Hertz foresaw the epoch-making significance of his experiment. With that dancing spark, an invisible world of humanoid spirits gave way to an invisible world of radiant energy.