His Master’s voice

During the relatively brief Californian chapter of my twenties, I happened to visit a little contemporary art museum in San Francisco the name of which I have no desire to google. I found the majority of the exhibits rather uninteresting and unintelligible (admittedly, my capacity to understand art ends somewhere around the 1960’s). But then, already on my way out, my eyes stumbled upon a very well lit object, the size of a table, made entirely of machined aluminum. God’s Breath Hovering Over the Waters (His Master’s Voice) said the title specifying other uninteresting details such as the artist’s name, year of creation, the materials employed, etc. That sculpture (I don’t know even if it is correct to apply this term to the shiny object) struck me like a lightning bolt and even today, ages hence, it often comes to my mind when I contemplate things eternal.

His Master’s Voice was probably one of the most recognizable trademarks in the recording industry (god also got some traction, so I’m told.) The catchy phrase was the title of a painting by the English artist Francis Barraud from the 1890s. When the painter’s brother Mark died, he inherited an old cylinder phonograph and a Jack Russel Terrier named Nipper (probably not of purest Aryan blood; the nickname stuck as the dog had the despicable habit of biting the guests’ legs.) Some of the phonograph cylinders contained recordings of Mark’s voice. The artist probably found it touching to see Nipper’s keen interest in the recordings of his late master’s voice, and decided to immortalize the scene on canvas.

At the century’s turn, the flat disc record was invented and gramophones quickly supplanted the old fashioned cylinder phonographs. (This was one of the few battles that Thomas Edison fought passionately and, eventually, lost; the other two were the “war of the currents” against Westinghouse, and the insistence on using carbon filaments in light bulbs instead of the much more resistant and manageable ductile tungsten invented by Coolidge.) The newly established Gramophone Company licensed the dog trademark through its US affiliate, the Victor Talking Machine Company. Victor quickly became associated with the dog’s image, and the record buyers were urged to “look for the dog” as an assurance of the company’s uncompromising quality. The company became identified with the His Master’s Voice catchphrase, and started a chain of record shops under the HMV brand. The dog logo survived until the 80’s when audio cassettes and CDs pushed gramophone records out of the market.

Joseph Brodsky confessed in one of his essays that “His master’s voice” was his first English utterance as a child, and that it took him almost a decade to realize the meaning of the phrase (he thought all those years that the dog was listening to the recording of its own barking.) I also have a confession to make: when I first came across the doggy brand in my childhood, I briefly shared the same belief.

With some imagination, the shiny aluminum “sculpture” in the SF museum could resemble the amplifier horn of Victor’s phonographs. But no, it unmistakably resembled a different object, a much bigger one — as big as a building. A horn microwave antenna…

In 1964, two physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson working for Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey were experimenting with a novel super-sensitive type of an antenna to detect radio waves bouncing off metalized balloon satellites. The research promised to improve satellite communication (the Space Race had already taken off) as well as ICBM detection and interception (the finger was still too nervous on the red button after the Cuba crisis). For an unknown reason, the antenna persistently measured noise two orders of magnitude more intense than the design specifications, spread evenly over the entire sky, present day and night. Theory is when you know everything but nothing works. Practice is when everything works but nobody knows why. That was a combination of theory and practice — nothing worked and nobody knew why. Penzias and Wilson double-checked that the liquid helium was properly cooling the receiver, made sure to exclude radio and radar broadcast interferences, and even removed a few bird nests from the horn and crawled inside to mop the accumulated guano… Nothing! The noise kept showing up insistently. The physicists shrugged their shoulders and concluded that it was not their fault — it must be some yet unknown extra-galactic radio source to create the interference. “That’s not my department” — said Arno Allan Penzias.

At the same time, at Princeton University, only 60 kilometers away, the physicist Robert Dicke was infatuated with a rogue cosmological model of the Universe expanding into its present condition from a primordial state of unfathomably high density and temperature. Some fifteen years earlier, Ralph Alpher defended a Ph.D. dissertation in which he developed a theory explaining the formation of hydrogen, helium, and other elements due to the gradual expansion and cooling of the cosmos. Alpher’s doctoral advisor George Gamow could not refrain from the pun and added the physicist Hans Bethe (eminent in his own right) to the paper. The Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper “On the Origin and Relative Abundance of the Elements” received considerable attention — it was publicly derided in a BBC broadcast by the British astronomer Fred Hoyle. He even coined a particular term to ridicule the expanding Universe model — “a big bang”. Alpher wasn’t discouraged at all and, with the help of another physicist Robert Herman (who stubbornly refused to change his name to Delter), calculated the temperature of the radiation emanating from the hypothesized “bang”.

Robert Dicke realized that this blast from the past would be either a landmark evidence or a deadly blow for the Big Bang theory. Calculations showed that due to the expansion of the cosmos, the photons should have been massively redshifted to the microwave range. With proper instrumentation, they could be detected. Dicke teamed up with his Princeton colleagues to build a microwave radiometer that would measure this cosmic radiation. When Penzias and Wilson learned about this effort, they began to realize that they had hit a jackpot. On May 20, 1964, Dicke received a phone call from Bell Labs and learned that another team of scientists had independently obtained results similar to his planned experiment. Dicke communicated the profound scientific consequences to his collaborators: “We’ve been scooped”. Fourteen years later, Penzias and Wilson were standing on stage in Stockholm receiving their Nobel medals from the King of Sweden. Dicke had to content himself with the microwave radiometer bearing his name.

So it happened that with their gargantuan horn — by pure accident — the two Bell Labs physicists discovered what today is called the cosmic microwave background radiation. It’s hard to think of another discovery in the entire history of human civilization that was more important for our understanding of where we live. Long ago, before screens could be scrolled with the finger, and when the word “digital” referred mainly to pathologies of the hand, one could observe a peculiar phenomenon: unplug the cable from your TV and the screen will fill with uniform “snow” accompanied by a characteristic whispering buzz. (ye, children of the Digital Age, you have no idea of what I’m talking about!) Anyway, a few percents of that snow signal comes from the cosmos, whispering to us about its violent origins.

This is how the dots connect…

I am a convinced — I shall even say, militant atheist and materialist to the bones, I don’t believe in eternal soul, afterlife, resurrection, reincarnation, and other religious nonsense, and I openly deride ridiculous theistic superstitions as, in my view, they belittle our homo sapiens’ intelligence. And yet… even taking god as a poetic metaphor, I find this allegory of Man listening to his Master’s voice simply beautiful. I find it hard to explain it even to myself. Perhaps, it fills me with awe — awe and admiration for how much we learned by merely putting to use the thirteen hundred grams of the grey stuff that we have between our ears. That, and never getting tired of asking the “how?” and the “why?” questions. Dr. Watson listened incredulous to his roommate, Sherlock Holmes, passionately defending his deductive method (it’s inductive, actually — oops!) and claiming how from a single drop of water a logician could infer the existence of Niagara falls or the Atlantic Ocean without ever having seen them. But would the famed detective himself be capable of inferring that, less than a century later, by listening to the faint microwave buzz we could figure out so many facts about how our Universe came into existence? Science has been so far a very attentive listener, and we have got incredibly far by listening to… well, you known whom.

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