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Noise

The Robert L. Forward novel Dragon’s Egg begins with an intrepid graduate student refusing to accept that a noisy satellite signal…By Michael Segal

The Robert L. Forward novel Dragon’s Egg begins with an intrepid graduate student refusing to accept that a noisy satellite signal is just a malfunction. It must have some meaning, she thinks—and it does, turning out to herald the passing by of an inhabited neutron star (and making graduate school look rather easy).

Even a malfunction, though, wouldn’t really have been noise. We’d have to assume that some satellite engineer would be interested. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any signal coming from space that would be of no interest to anyone. The noisiest signals are even sometimes the most important. Microwave and gravitational wave backgrounds, for example.

Our modern definition of noise, as unwanted sound or signal, is a relatively recent one. The word used to mean strife, and nausea. Is the new meaning a useful ontology? Or does it encourage us to dismiss what we can’t interpret?

Welcome to “Noise.”

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