Save that old TV – there’s a message in the “snow”

Digital TV is wonderful, but there is one feature from the age of Analog TV that I will miss – snow. Yes, that warm white hiss that appeared whenever reception was bad, or a station went off the air. Back in the rabbit ear days before cable, snow was an irritating distraction or downright annoyance when it interfered with the Super Bowl or an episode of Gilligan’s Island, but even then, snow was misunderstood.

Consider the cause of snow. A TV antenna is a sponge for radio energy, collecting lots more than just the desired signal. Snow is the result of the TV attempting to turn stray signals into an image, signals from radio stations, emissions from power lines, transformers or appliances, or even from the electrical noise of the circuits in the TV itself. The result is the strangely-calming ant-dance of black on white that we call snow.

But snow has another source, a source far from this planet in both time and space. Mixed in with the noise of Earthling civilization are radio echoes of the Big Bang, the moment of the Universe’s creation 13 Billion years ago. The universe started out very small and very hot, and has been expanding and cooling ever since. As it cools, the Big Bang’s fossil radiation sheds radio energy in the same way a cake on a cooling rack gives up heat. And when those indescribably ancient radio waves run down the rabbit ears and into your analog TV, the TV’s circuitry interprets it as an image, and voila! – Snow.

Snow isn’t noise; it is signal, and the first humans to realize it won the Nobel Prize. In 1964, Bell Labs researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson attempted to track down the source of the annoying static in a satellite antenna they were using to study radio emissions in the Milky Way. They sleuthed their way through the circuitry trying to find its source. They asked AT&T to shoot the pigeons roosting in the antenna (each reportedly claims the other ordered the shooting), thinking that the pigeon droppings were the cause. No luck. The static was coming into their antenna from space, and because it came from every direction they aimed their antenna, they realized it wasn’t coming from the Milky Way, but from space itself. They had discovered evidence of the Big Bang.

Snow is not just signal; it is also mystery. Consider the rabbit-hole of scientific questions that Penzias’ and Wilson’s discovery has led us down. Less than a century ago, Edwin Hubble startled the world with the discovery that our galaxy was merely one in a universe of countless galaxies. Today, the intellectual heirs to Penzias and Wilson tell us that our universe is but one in an archipelago of Universes.

No wonder there is something comforting about snow. Think back to waking up in front of an old-fashioned analog TV at 2:00 AM, long after the anthem had played and the TV station switched off its transmitter for the night. That snow you saw wasn’t noise; it was the universe whispering it’s secrets to you while you dozed in it’s gentle glow.

Our digital TVs don’t display snow. Instead, when the signal fades the image on screen breaks up into a pixel hash of bits resembling nothing so much as a madman’s ransom note or an explosion in a silicon confetti factory. Perhaps it has meaning, but I doubt it is anything profound. Maybe someday we will discover that it is alien spam or personal ads floating out from one of the extra-solar planets that astronomers have been discovering lately. Perhaps it is the digital TV muttering nonsense to itself.

This is why I won’t throw out my analog TV or retire its rabbit ears any time soon. Analog broadcast has gone mute, but the longest-running TV show in the universe – the cosmic radiation of the Big Bang– is still playing and I might want to tune in from time to time. Maybe it will help me get to sleep some night, and who knows, perhaps the Universe will whisper a secret in my ear.