The tuning of electric suns

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 11, 2018

Talk to the hand: A lone man with arms folded as others perform the Nazi salute, 1936 (possibly August Landmesser of Gustav Wegert)   -  Wikipedia

The evolution of radio and the rise of Hitler

Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels went so far as to say that (1933) “it would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” This speech also inaugurated the Volksempfänger VE301, or the People’s Radio — a cheap set intended to receive only German and Austrian stations. Radio links between weapons and troops were central to Nazi war strategy too; each Panzer tank carried a radio operator, thereby decentralising command-and-control to maximise fluidity.

The fascist alliance of Berlin and Rome lay on a nearly vertical longitude of the Earth, around which Europe could “revolve”, resulting in their uncanny name — the Axis Powers. The raised right arm of the Nazi salute was a magnetic needle pointing at the Führer; it made the new vector field of geopolitical power visible to everyone. One might even surmise that the rise of Hitler was a direct result of the discovery of radio waves.

They emerged from the same electromagnetic lineage as the ancient mariner’s compass. In 1820, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted observed the deflection of a compass needle in the presence of an electric current. Once established, the link between electricity and magnetism would lead to the four laws of electromagnetism, proposed in 1861 by James Clerk Maxwell. Even though the laws merely described the spatial fields generated by charges and magnets, they predicted something extraordinary.

According to Michael Fowler, “It made evident for the first time that varying electric and magnetic fields could feed off each other — these fields could propagate indefinitely through space, far from the varying charges and currents where they originated.” In a sense, the E-M fields formed an autocatalytic, infinite loop that could multiply itself on its own across space and time at the speed of light.

In his eponymous lectures, Richard Feynman describes the fields pervading his classroom thusly (1964), “First of all, there is a steady magnetic field; it comes from the currents in the interior of the earth — that is, the earth’s steady magnetic field. Then there are some irregular, nearly static electric fields produced perhaps by electric charges generated by friction as various people move about in their chairs and rub their coat sleeves against the chair arms. Then there are other magnetic fields produced by oscillating currents in the electrical wiring — fields which vary at a frequency of 60 cycles per second, in synchronism with the generator at Boulder Dam. But more interesting are the electric and magnetic fields varying at much higher frequencies. For instance, as light travels from window to floor and wall to wall, there are little wiggles of the electric and magnetic fields moving along at 186,000 miles per second. Then there are also infrared waves travelling from the warm foreheads to the cold blackboard.”

In the race to manipulate radio waves, it is interesting to see the difference between the approach taken by Heinrich Hertz and Jagadish Chandra Bose. Hertzian wavelengths were as long as 66cm, while Bose chose to explore the microwave region (2.5cm to 5mm). The size of his makeshift laboratory, “a small enclosure adjoining a bathroom in Presidency College”, Calcutta — which he occupied in 1894 — may have had something to do with this decision, because longer wavelengths would require larger apparatus for measurement.

Just as the dimensions of Bose’s laboratory pushed him towards the microwave spectrum, radio facilitated a new electromagnetic architecture of power personified by Hitler. In other words, technology chooses the man who will be its vehicle by creating the circumstances for it, and not the man who chooses the technology. The universe does not care whether its forces are employed by a Hitler or Gandhi, as long as they achieve their own machinic potential.

Sources of radio emission are now known to be ubiquitous — sunspots in the spectrum of our sun, the toroidal rings of electrons spinning around Jupiter, lightning in a thunderstorm, distant pulsars, and there is now an ongoing debate about the radio emissions from the DNA of certain bacteria such as E Coli.

Most users of a portable radio soon discover that turning the radio can improve the reception significantly. This is because radio waves are tilted along a certain angle in space — that is, “polarised”. Antennae turned towards the sky do something very similar, studying the polarisation of microwaves left over from the Big Bang. In the words of author JG Ballard, “the rusting dish of a radio-telescope on a nearby peak, a poor man’s begging bowl held up to the banquet of the universe.”

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

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Published on July 28, 2017
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