Mack Williams column: Radio astronomy

  • Posted: Monday, May 6, 2013 12:26 a.m.

Although to me as a child the world of electronics was a wonderful thing, if anyone had told me what that “world” would later become, I would have doubted their senses. In a variation on the cows of Pharaoh’s Joseph-interpreted dream, fat (though relatively small) television sets have become thin and flat, mini drive-in size, with the danger of fights breaking out between people anxiously waiting for their unwrapping and selling at Walmart on Black Friday (in some places, now moved up to become “Black Thanksgiving”). This modern world of electronics is amazing to those of us who have not only used aluminum foil in the baking of chicken, but have also used it in the past as an analog transmission “receiver.”

My first fascination with anything electronic goes back to one of the “classics” of the species, a transistor radio belonging to my brother Joe in the 1950s. It was black, about 5 inches long, 3 inches wide, and about 2 inches deep. It was relatively small in comparison to what would come later, but despite its simplicity, its position as a “first” gives it a place of honor over the later extravagance. This memory could be called  “golden-plus,” since it dates from over 50 years ago, and I seem to recall that part of the little radio’s dial was painted gold as well.


One night in the late 1950s, after Joe had gone to bed, I “borrowed” his radio for the night. For some reason, I remember that it was a Friday night, and that there was no school the following day, just Saturday morning cartoons (a certain amount of sleep is necessary for school, but not for cartoons). I lay in bed all night, “radio surfing” from one end of the band to the other, while at the same time looking out-and-upward through my bed-adjacent window toward the few stars visible between the limbs of the great trees in our yard.

Despite the logging which has recently gone on there, I’m sure that those trees still stand in my old yard, because my friend Charlie, who lives there with his wife Pam, said words to the effect that anyone attempting to remove his trees would have to pry them from his “cold, dead hands “ (or in the case of a tree, his “cold, dead arms”). These are only “words to the effect” and a partial paraphrase from the late Charlton Heston. Charlie is much too nice to have actually put it this way, but I would have.

I listened to rock, rockabilly, jazz, easy listening, classical, etc. on that long-ago night; and sometimes, the music was interspersed with a little talk. Included under the heading of “easy listening,” there were “crooners”: Crosby, Como, Williams, Bennett, Mathis and Sinatra. The music seemed, to me, to be coming from as far away as the stars in the sky. I particularly remember looking up at those stars and hearing Johnny Mathis sing, “Fly Me to the Moon,” which seemed appropriate. “Stardust” would have been nice too, but I don’t remember hearing it that night.

Some years later, I would own the first in a series of telescopes and be out in the front yard trying to aim my telescope between those same skyward limbs to glimpse, stars, planets and the moon. (Back then, the constellations which I saw, in addition to containing the usual patterns of stars, were also partly made up of leaves, twigs, branches, limbs, and here and there, a trunk).

In the professional realm, another aspect of astronomy involves the large “receiving dish” known as the radio telescope. It can be attuned to stars to examine the type of radiation which they put forth, in the hope of learning something about the physics within them. This is how the “background radiation,” or “echo” from the “Big Bang” at the beginning of the universe was discovered, a minute vibration detected from every region of the sky, and it just keeps going on and on. Since that echo just keeps going on and on and on, and never ends, I’ve often thought that if that signal could somehow be converted into music, it just might go: “Na na na — na na na na — na na na na — hey Jude,” going on forever, and ever, and ever.

Like those astronomers, I “attuned” my big brother’s radio to learn something of other distant (but not as distant) places in the night, such as New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc. During the day, those far distant AM stations fade due to the sun’s ionization of the atmosphere, but after sunset, and increasingly throughout the night, the signals get stronger, fading with sunrise.

As the sun was dawning the following morning, its growing light was accompanied by increasing static from the little radio’s speaker, a static which overcame the music and words coming from the farthest places.

My night of “radio” astronomy was over.

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