Listening to Space

by Gregory Betts

Space is supposed to be silent, so it comes as a shock to learn how noisy it is out there. Before we even get to the prospect of listening to extra-terrestrial intelligence, we have to admit the sheer volume of the universe. Radio astronomy as a field and practice is less than a century old, but it has already mapped an ocean of radio waves constantly pouring over the Earth, coming from stars, planets, comets, and even Jupiter’s ionosphere – together, they produce a “constant symphony of strange and interesting sounds”(Astrum). There is even a distinct sound from Black Holes, which has been described by Paul Sutter as “creepy”: it is sound “on a truly astronomical timescale.”

Credit: NASA/GSFC Wind Waves Michael L. Kaiser

All the volume of noise constantly passing through and about the cosmos is equalled (if not surpassed) in human experience by the volume of noise on planet Earth. Almost every nation on the planet now produces enough content each year that it would take someone a lifetime to consume it all. Consider that last year middle-sized Canada alone released over 273, 646 new songs into the world (or 570 days’ worth of music), over 10, 000 books (more than the average academic reads in a lifetime), 171 feature length movies, almost as many hockey games as there are people, and so on. The sheer quantity of endless entertainment from all around the world is overwhelming.

This noisy Earth makes it all the more remarkable that some humans are doing their very best to tune out all that noise and are trying to listen to space. Many are listening to the things out there – the planets, stars, and celestial objects. Some, though, are listening through the ocean of noise to the possibility of something else.

“A Sign in Space” reminds me that the act of listening is radical, and how even more revolutionary is the act of listening for creatures we don’t even know exist. It is an act or leap of faith against our profound and existential isolation. No wonder Sagan and Lem turn to religious language in their attempts to apprehend the enormity of Contact in their novels. Calvino, who wrote the story after which the project is named, is more playful and attends, instead, to the generative impermanence of signs. We speak, we make noise, in order to reach another, in anticipation of them speaking, reaching back to us. Reaching back and forth across the endless hostile abyss of solitude, our signs are cumulative, propulsive, and mutually erasing.

My first reaction to “A Sign in Space” is to marvel at the delightful improbability of so many humans around the world tuning out the Earth and listening to space. Through them, I am drawn to the totally irrational possibility (and mathematical probability, as Drake showed) of hearing something, of hearing a sign in space. It would undo so many of the foundations we rely upon about the meaning of life on Earth, and perhaps even draw into question the meaning of meaning as we understand it.

In response to the questions and provocations of “A Sign in Space”, the band TZT in St. Catharines, Ontario, of which I am a member, has composed the piece “Beyond Solitude.” We respond directly to an image that Wael Farrah of the Greenbank Observatory released during the live broadcast of “A Sign in Space.” The image depicts a spectrum plot of the arrival of the message on Earth, and its detection by the Greenbank Observatory. Though this message is human in origin, the image is not materially different from what a message by aliens might look like. We wanted to engage with the mysterious sounds of space and the jarring, sudden arrival of such a message. With all language, we speak against our isolation. Here, we sing our strange and interesting music towards the prospect of hearing someone beyond our solitude.

Credit: Daniel Estévez from Discord

Vocalizations: Gregory Betts
Saxophone and Clarinet: Gary Barwin
Guitar: Arnold McBay
Bass: Ben Mikuska
Drums: Devon Forneli

Recording by Max Anderson in the Sound Studio at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.


Your Signs in Space - vol. 4
3 June - The number of threads about different interpretations of the message keeps growing