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The Sound of Science - "Noise"


Welcome to The Sound of Science on WNIJ.

When you think of the word “noise”, what comes to mind? People chatting around you? The rumble of the road? The buzz from a TV? Many people equate noise with sound, but scientists and researchers have a different vernacular, and they use noise differently. Like with sound, noise to a scientist refers to something unwanted in the background, something that distracts from the real subject.  You can think of it like static on the radio. However, this noise cannot be heard, only seen as errors in data. For scientists looking at the results of an experiment, “noisy” data and “clean” data is like comparing spray paint to a ballpoint pen.  Scientists can take great, and sometimes odd, measures to reduce the amount of noise they encounter.

However, there is one story of how the noise within the data led to one of the most important discoveries of the modern world. In the mid 60’s, two astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, from Bell Laboratories gained access to a radio telescope, a telescope the size of a semi truck that collects light invisible to the human eye. They intended to use this telescope to test an early version of a satellite network. As they collected data, they came to realize that they had a lot of noise in their results.

They tried everything in the book to reduce this noise: they tested at different times of the day and year, they used liquid helium to eliminate heat, and they even went as far as to crawl inside the telescope itself to clean out the pigeon droppings. Nothing they did had any impact at all on getting rid of this noise.

Eventually, with the help of a few other astrophysicists and astronomers, Arno and Robert realized what they had discovered: the faint echoes of the Big Bang.

While noise is almost never enjoyable, whether it’s a squeaky shoe or nails on a chalkboard, it led to the discovery of what we call the cosmic microwave background. This scientific noise has pushed us forward in learning how our universe was formed, how old it is, what it’s made of, and even what it will look like millions of years after we’re gone.

I'm Sam Watt with The Sound of Science. You’re listening to WNIJ where you learn something new everyday.

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