Saturday, 7 May 2011


I’ve been reading James Attlee’s Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, which is among other things an eloquent argument against light pollution and in favour of darkened skies: ‘What a profligate civilization we are, burning up our resources to light streets that nobody walks down and shop-window displays that nobody sees, pouring light on the empty pavements as a ritual oblation to the god of money.’

Attlee also discusses an intriguing artwork by Katie Paterson, in which she transmitted a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the moon via morse code using an EME [earth-moon-earth] radio communication system in Southampton. Reflected off the moon’s surface, a process known as ‘moonbounce’, it arrived at another station in Sweden about half a million miles and 2.5 seconds later. But the music had changed: ‘the moon reflects only part of the information back – some of it is absorbed by its shadows, lost in its craters.’ Attlee considers the new version an improvement on Beethoven.

Paterson’s work reminded me of the attempts to transmit TV signals long distances in the days before Telstar and other satellites, as they tried almost everything to get the high frequency waves over what Marconi called ‘the stubborn curvature of the earth’. In the early 1950s, there was an idea – never put into practice - to use aeroplanes as gigantic TV transmitters. The planes would travel in lazy circles 30,000 feet above the earth, sending out short waves that would blanket the earth’s surface like a giant inverted ice-cream cone covering an area 400 miles in diameter. Another plan was to bounce radio waves off the surface of the moon. In May 1959, Jodrell Bank, in co-operation with Pye, the now defunct British manufacturer of televisions, sent morse messages via the moon to Cambridge Air Force Base, Massachussetts, but the sound was poor and in any case the signals could only be sent once the moon had set, which would have had the effect of severely rationing television. Perhaps, for those of us who have had the misfortune to catch some of the recent offerings on ITV2, this would have been no bad thing.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.’ Graffiti in ancient Pompeii, from Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History

1 comment:

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