The Buzzing in Your Ear

written by Kat Bair
9 · 07 · 23

Do you know that some portion of the static on televisions and radios is actually the echo of The Big Bang? This sounds very made up, but it’s real, and it was discovered almost by accident.

This is a story of two teams of astrophysicists, working 35 miles down the road from one another – one at Princeton University, one at Bell Labs – on totally separate projects. 

 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Labs, were experimenting with a massive, super-sensitive antenna that was designed to listen for passing satellites. Because the signals they were listening to were so faint, they needed to remove all possible interference. They eliminated air resistance, distant birds and airplanes, but no matter what they did, they couldnt get rid of this persistent buzz. The buzz was consistent no matter the time of day or weather, and it was coming equally from all directions. Stranger yet, they knew by the millimeters of the waves that radiation they detected couldn’t be from the Earth, the Sun, or anywhere in our galaxy. They assumed there must be something wrong with the equipment. 

The two men obsessed, recalibrating and tweaking, cleaning the antenna, shooing away nearby pigeons, cleaning off rat droppings, but nothing got rid of the buzz. 

Down the road, a team at Princeton was working on mathematically proving the existence of cosmic background radiation, essentially that the explosion of the Big Bang was so forceful that there should still be traces of it detectable with the right equipment. The team was working on a paper and planned to try to design an instrument to listen for it. 

They would need some kind of massive, super-sensitive antenna with as much interference removed as possible. 

A friend of Penzias was telling him about the work at Princeton, and the lightbulb went off. 

Can you imagine being him? You’ve been fighting with an antenna for months and months, tweaking dials and shoo-ing pigeons, frustrating your bosses, because you were sure you’d be ready by now, and the technology has important military and commercial implications. You’ve been feeling like a failure because you can’t get rid of this persistent buzz in your headphones getting in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish. 

And then, a chance conversation, and you realize that buzz may actually be the echo of the creation of the universe. 

The two teams of scientists paired up and confirmed, yes, the buzz was actually what is now known as Cosmic Background Radiation, a low frequency consistent radiation that exists everywhere in the universe as a sort of ripple of the Big Bang. 

Back when people switched channels on tvs, or stations on the radio (not something many of us do any more) there was a loud grainy sound as the antenna searched for the next signal. The “white noise” is a combination of weak signals, none strong enough to overpower the others, like static in the phone lines, fragments of adjacent channels, and, yes, partially, cosmic background radiation. It’s mathematical proof of the big bang, and there has been technology capable of capturing it in the average American’s home for 75 years. 

What if the buzzing in our brains, the things that are distracting, persistent pulls away from our work, are white noise in the same way? What if it is the hum, not of the creation of the universe, but its Creator?

What if those nagging thoughts and ideas you just can’t let go of aren’t meant to be silenced? What if what you need to do isn’t remove the interference, but listen to it? What if the important work you have set about isn’t nearly as important as the buzzing sound that keeps getting in the way? 

This week, this blog is late, because the buzzing sounds in my life, interrupting my work, are my infant twins. Their little squeaks after too-short naps ensure that the things that I think are important are being constantly interrupted. But it feels like the sound that I may need to hear, and the distraction worth all the work that gets dropped to listen to it. 

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Kat Bair

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