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Emergency Krulwich: Satellite Lucy

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Emergency Krulwich: Satellite Lucy


Emergency Krulwich: Satellite Lucy

Emergency Krulwich: Satellite Lucy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

When something goes wrong on air, we turn to esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich. Here, Krulwich reports that we make a lot of noise on Earth with TV and radio broadcasts. Some of that sound escapes into space. Can Lucille Ball's laugh be heard across the universe?


So I am knee deep in garbage.


You are?

PESCA: Yeah. I've been doing a lot of research as to Italy's garbage problem.


PESCA: It's caused some mob hits. The Gomorrah, or Camorra, but we Italians pronounce our Cs as Gs, like calamari becomes galamari (ph). I could go on and on, and I was going to actually do that with a gentleman named John Hooper who's been covering...

MARTIN: I was really looking forward to that.

PESCA: Oh, yeah. It was going to happen, but it's not going to happen.

MARTIN: Oh, no. What are we going to do now?

PESCA: Well, in situations like these when one guest falls out, there's only one option. It's been, I believe, 47 days since we've gone to this option, but now it is time. Rachel, bring us there...

MARTIN: Oh, can it be? Let us deploy the Emergency Krulwich!

MATT MARTINEZ: When you're doing a live radio show like the Bryant Park Project, sometimes things go wrong. Guests sleep through their alarms, they get stuck in traffic, and sometimes they get better offers. And when they do, the BPP is ready with a piece by NPR's esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich.

MARTIN: Get me Krulwich!

MARTIN: We call it Emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of theme song "A-Team")

DAN PASHMAN: But Mr. Martinez, you said only to use Emergency Krulwich in an emergency!

MARTINEZ: Damn it, man, this IS an emergency! Control room, deploy Emergency Krulwich!

(Soundbite of TV Show "I Love Lucy")

Ms. LUCILLE BALL: (As Lucy) So why don't you join the thousands of happy, happy people and get a great big bottle of milometer smidgen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERT KRULWICH: Fifty-seven years, ago CBS introduced "I Love Lucy" to America. The program was broadcasted. That means it was sent through the air and travelled across the country, but not like this really.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: More compressed into fast moving waves like this.

(Soundbite of musical waves)

Mr. CHRIS IMPEY (Astronomer): Yeah, it moves into electromagnetic waves.

KRULWICH: Which says astronomer Chris Impey were beamed from transmitters in the east and then bounced through receiver to receiver across the country.

Mr. IMPEY: And they travel at pretty much light speed.

KRULWICH: Until Lucy's signal hit your TV antennae at home and got switched back into...

Ms. LUCILLE BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: But some of those Lucy waves passed through our houses and bounced off the Earth.

Mr. IMPEY: And then eek out into space.

KRULWICH: At the speed of light. So how long did it take for Lucy's signal to go from the East Coast to, say, Chicago?

Mr. IMPEY: Oh, that's probably a micro second.

KRULWICH: And then how about, I don't know, about out to the moon?

Mr. IMPEY: About a second and a half.

KRULWICH: And to Mars?

Mr. IMPEY: Mars is some number of minutes. Jupiter is probably an hour, and five hours to the edge of the solar system.

KRULWICH: Five hours and she's left the solar system. Wow. So, if that wave has been carrying...

Mr. DESI ARNAZ: (as Ricky Ricardo) Lucy!

KRULWICH: Across space all this time, where is Lucy now?

Mr. IMPEY: It's traveled for 57 years, so it's traveled 57 light years, so that's a good hard number of miles. So 57 light years is about 200 trillion miles, 200 trillion miles from the Earth, pretty impressive.

KRULWICH: Yeah. Does that mean her signal has passed by a couple of hundred stars by now?

Mr. IMPEY: Yes, many of which will probably have Earth-like planets around them, so that's interesting.

KRULWICH: Yeah. Because somebody light years from here right now, could be trying to figure out what is happening to this poor Earth creature?

Ms. BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Oh Ethel, my wedding ring is some place in this barbeque.

KRULWICH: And then they would have to know what a barbeque is and also what a laugh is, if they can even hear a laugh.

Mr. IMPEY: Yeah, what's left of her laugh. I guess we have to start going to the brutal truth.

KRULWICH: OK. So, here is the brutal truth.

(Soundbite of big bang)

KRULWICH: It goes back to the big bang that helped create our universe or our imaginary version. But the echo of that event, says Chris Impey, can still be detected today. It's a low, faint, hum.

Mr. IMPEY: It's a microwave hum or static hum of microwaves.

KRULWICH: That scientists see on radiometers wherever they look.

Mr. IMPEY: Everywhere in space you can't get away from it. You can't get around it. You can't suppress it.

KRULWICH: But when Lucy's signal first left the Earth, it was strong. It was louder than the echo of the big bang.

Mr. IMPEY: Oh, yes.

KRULWICH: Until she was subject to a basic law of physics.

Mr. IMPEY: The inverse square law.

KRULWICH: Right. Which says...?

Mr. IMPEY: Basically, the strength of the signal goes down as the square of the distance.

KRULWICH: Which means that very quickly as she moves away from Earth, Lucy's signal...

Ms. BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) That's viter, meter vegimen.

KRULWICH: Gets softer.

Ms. BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) That's viter, meter vegimen.

KRULWICH: And softer.

Ms. BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) That's viter, meter vegimen.

KRULWICH: And softer, until she becomes indistinguishable from the deep hum of the universe. So, yes, technically, Lucy's wave is still out there. It's still traveling, but in effect, she has disappeared into the echo of the Big Bang.

Mr. IMPEY: Yeah, she has.

KRULWICH: And even the cleverest aliens imaginable, says Chris Impey, would not be able to find her, because to find her signal buried in the hum of the universe...

Mr. IMPEY: Is just beyond any technology we can imagine to pick it up.

KRULWICH: So they're not going to hear Lucy.

Mr. IMPEY: They're not going to hear Lucy.

KRULWICH: So, then when does Lucy, in fact, disappear? How far out?

Mr. IMPEY: Out to where will we hear Lucy?


Mr. IMPEY: Really, not too far beyond the edge of the solar system.

KRULWICH: Really? So, she doesn't get much past Pluto, that is such a piddley, and it's even worse than that, says Chris Impey, because while there were a whole lot of television signals slipping into space in the 1950s and '60s...

(Soundbite of theme song "The Mousketeers")

KRULWICH: And '70s and '80s.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Earth was a noisy place for awhile. So if you were an alien passing by, you would think, what's going on down there?

(Soundbite from TV show "Fawlty Towers")

Ms. PRUNELLA SCALES: (As Sybil Fawlty) Have you made up the bill for 112, Basil?

Mr. JOHN CLEESE: (As Basil Fawlty) No, I haven't yet no.

KRULWICH: But more recently, as we earthlings have become more technologically sophisticated, we take our signals and we turn them into narrow beams. We aim them at satellites.

Mr. IMPEY: With microwave transmitters ,we actually direct the signals, point to point, across the surface of the Earth. We direct the signals up to satellites and then bounce them back down.

KRULWICH: And we don't boom them out like we used to. Instead, we compress them into fiber optic cables.

Mr. IMPEY: So, it's a very efficient way to carry signals.

KRULWICH: But then no one gets to hear that stuff?

Mr. IMPEY: No one gets to hear that.

KRULWICH: And so, since the 1990s, the volume of sound bouncing off our planet, our accidental noise has gone down.

Mr. IMPEY: We have become probably orders of magnitude quieter, in terms of radio leakage than 20 or 30 years ago.

KRULWICH: So, the fact of our being here, the noise of us not only can't be heard much beyond the solar system, more and more of what we say can't be heard at all.

Mr. IMPEY: Yes, we're a little quieter now.

KRULWICH: And as for the notion that we have radio, and we have TV, and we have culture and surely somebody out there is going to notice us...

Mr. IMPEY: And you know, we tend to feel that our technology and our muscular ability to send signals around the planet really does make us special and therefore noticeable, but not actually, we're not that noticeable.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IMPEY: Space is incredibly large and we're sort of just dropped in the void.

KRULWICH: Where the loudest noises that we make turn out to be barely a peep. Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

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