Friday, February 17, 2012

Tuning in

I have mentioned here before my friend and neighbor Dwight, he of the preternatural powers of observation. To walk with Dwight is to realize that I go through life half blind, missing half of what there is to see. It's like living in one of those picture puzzles we enjoyed as children, an ordinary scene that hides images of puppies, pumpkins and tin drums. He teaches me lots of other stuff too, like how to change brake pads.

In return I share some of my knowledge, such as it is, like when and where to look for a young new moon and what makes the Sun burn.

Yesterday on our walk along the beach he asked about cell phones: How is it that someone's recognizable voice comes right out of the air?

It's a good question, and I did my best to answer it.

As I finished, I began to think again about something that always boggles my mind when I think about it: As we walked along the beach, we were walking through a sea of electromagnetic radiation modulated with information.

We were walking through dozens of telephone conversations. The weather and news from around the world. Pop music. Classical symphonies. Ship to shore communications. Ham radio. GPS. We were plowing like ocean liners through swells of human commerce, socialization, war making, entertainment. Unawares, unsensing, oblivious.

It passes though our bodies, through the walls of the house. Some of it from not so far away; some from halfway around the world. The planet hums in it. Glimmers in it. The planet glows in it, a soft, invisible glow. The astronauts on the Moon tuned in with their radios. And we on Earth, no matter where we were, walking along the beach even, could have twiddled a dial and sucked it out of the ether: "One small step…"

I wonder if Heinrich Hertz could have imagined in 1886, when he first broadcast and received an electromagnetic signal across his lab, with instruments made of brass wood, wire, string and sealing wax, that he was initiating an era in which we would move, eat, make love and have our being in a vast shimmering imperceptible ocean of radiant communication.