The kohl-makers of Venus

Rohit Gupta | Updated on October 19, 2018 Published on October 19, 2018

In hindsight Bose’s 1904 patent for the microwave detector looks like an eye, with galena as its “kohl”   -  IMAGE COURTESY: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The invention of radio, and its pre-existence in the solar system’s geology

Among the numerous macabre depictions of Indian occultism in the West, a peculiar case was the Electrical Experimenter magazine published by Hugo Gernsback from 1913-1920. He would later go on to launch Amazing Stories, in 1926, the first magazine devoted to science-fiction, but the contents of Electrical Experimenter were highly imaginative by itself.

A frequently printed classified advertisement reads, “You have all heard of the great Hindoo trick — making a plant grow out of a flower pot right in front of an audience. This trick has puzzled the whole world for years until an old Hindoo fakir gave it away. We send the whole outfit by mail with full instructions for 15 cents.”

Within the same magazine appear several accounts of the famous Indian scientist Sir Jagadis Chunder Bose; one of them, from April 1920, was ‘Watching Plants Grow’. It described Bose’s crescograph — a sensitive instrument to measure the response of plants under various conditions. “Instead of watching a whole season to learn if a certain plant will grow well in a given soil, and in a given climate, this test can now be carried out in a few days or weeks. The accompanying graphic curves show some of the effects of electric shocks and poisons on plant growth,” it says. The intersection of myth and science is striking; which one was driving the other?

This magazine, among many others, was also the stage for a great and global race — the development of wireless telegraphy and radio, whose protagonists included Bose, Guglielmo Marconi, Oliver Lodge and Nikola Tesla. In the early days, they were all preoccupied with the development of a device called the ‘coherer’ to detect radio waves. Certain metallic dusts would clump together (cohere) in the presence of these waves, and begin to conduct current — which could be used to trigger an event remotely from a distance, such as a gun or bomb. Bose was the first to use crystals of galena (lead sulphide) as a detector; he designed it like an ‘artificial retina’ which observed the ‘invisible light’ (adrisya alok) of radio.

The creation of a wave was easier — the earliest instruments were simple, electrical spark generators. One could speculate that there would also exist similar, natural sources of radio waves, such as lightning or an aurora borealis. Quite by accident in 1931, Karl Jansky detected the first extraterrestrial radio waves coming from the Milky Way, inaugurating the era of radio astronomy, which — in a dramatic turn of history — made stars visible in the day.

By 1955, apart from a universe teeming with radio noise — the gas giant Jupiter (a ‘failed star’) was found to emit a strong radio signal. The interaction with its volcanic moon Io generates these radio storms through a ‘cyclotron maser’ mechanism, an electrical circuit that evolved geologically in outer space. Which begets the important question — are there naturally evolved systems in the universe which are capable of detecting radio signals from other planets and stars?

The sulphide of lead, or galena — used in the detector by Bose, is found widely on Earth and was used by ancient Egyptians in a processed form of eyeliner (kohl). According to a 2010 study on ancient containers in the Louvre, “it is clear that such intentional production remains the first known example of a large scale chemical process”. Rebecca Kreston reports in the article Ophthalmology Of The Pharaohs that, “The cosmetic’s regular usage could have cut down on the prevalence of ocular scarring, cataracts and blindness.”

The Magellan and Pioneer space probes near Venus have reported through radar imagery (or radio-based imaging) that “snow” on the surface of Venus contains large quantities of lead sulphide. It is not hard to imagine a situation that certain geological tracts of this metallic snow act as a coherer in the presence of radio waves from outer space, clumping together to mark forever the arrival of a message from distant stars, like an interstellar telegraph in Morse Code. Two years before Karl Jansky’s discovery of the cosmic radiophony, Hart Crane wrote in the poem Cape Hatteras:

“And from above, thin squeaks of radio static,

The captured fume of space foams in our ears —

What whisperings of far watches on the main

Relapsing into silence, while time clears

Our lenses, lifts a focus, resurrects

A periscope --”

If the apparently random orchestrations of the four fundamental forces of nature are able to produce something so uncannily ordered as life — a planet-sized radio seems almost trivial in comparison. What other natural machines exist within or beyond the solar system? Like Bose’s crystal detector, do there exist geologically assembled waveguides, capacitors, antennas, dielectric lenses, polarisers and semiconductor diodes? In the vast immensity of worlds, some would surely contain an XOR gate, a Turing machine... a self-assembled, geological computer. Or, at the very least, photosynthetic plants that grow visibly, and communicate in music via radio waves.



Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah


Published on October 19, 2018
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