The digital big bang is coming. So wave goodbye to the real one


GIVEN THE mindburbling vastness of the universe, and the span of all history since its creation, 14 billion years ago, when the early soup of elements slowly cohered over aeons to form billions of galaxies and trillions of planets, stretching to infinity in every direction from our small rock, which bobs in the unimaginable emptiness of space, and on which life has improbably, preciously sprung, it still seems mildly surprising that we would ever reach the point when Marty Morrissey would be partly responsible for turning off the big bang.

Yet here we are.

To explain: you’ll have noticed that the digital switchover is due in a month’s time. You’ll have noticed because every time you turn on the radio or television someone is telling you. And they’re followed by someone else. And then the first person returns again, just to check you got all of that.

There is the multitude of ads (Marty and colleagues, including Mary Kennedy and Gay Byrne). There’s the date stamped in the corner of the picture. There are Morning Ireland’s dutiful news packages. (“We’ve heard this morning about the terrible earthquake in South America, but how will this affect the digital switchover?”)

Right now the campaign resembles a pre-invasion propaganda campaign of an army massed on the border. The last holdouts, it suggests, are the elderly, who are the target of repeated messages warning them that digital is imminent and that they must prepare for it or face the consequences. October 24th is a Wednesday. Judging by the current campaign, three days later a group of suits in RTÉ will gather around a computer screen and watch its version of the casualty figures roll in: the ratings for that week’s Winning Streak.

Finally, a month from now, the switchover will happen. And those who have until now enjoyed the simple pleasures – and occasional frustrations – of what we are at this point expected to call analogue television will notice that the signal will only ever be in one of two states: it will be on, or it will be off. Either there will be life and laughter and entertainment, or there will be blue blankness. There will be nothing between. Except when Craig Doyle is on.

From October 24th, in the era of digital totality, there will be no snow. It will be gone, surviving only in old films as a trope that needs explaining to young people. But to their parents it will forever be the sound of our hero waking up hungover on the sofa; the glow of malevolence in The Ring; the portal through which evil commutes in Poltergeist.

Younger people will have no idea of what it is like to see a picture emerge from the dancing fuzz depending on where Dad stands with the rabbit ears. Or to see it drown in grey goo as it gets sunnier outside.

Eskimos have 50 words (or whatever) for snow. The world has many more for this other type. This is from Wikipedia:

“The phenomenon is often called myrornas krig in Swedish; myrekrig in Danish; hangyák háborúja in Hungarian; and semut bertengkar in Indonesian, which translates to ‘war of the ants’, or sometimes hangyafoci, which means ‘ant soccer’; and in Romanian, purici, which translates into ‘fleas’ ”. Ant soccer?

Static has no place because a digital signal is either strong enough to be received, or it is not. This is called the digital cliff, and TV static has been pushed off it. But this is worthy of a little extra nostalgia because of two scientists and some pigeon droppings.

In the mid-1960s Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson built an extremely sensitive antenna to be used in radio astronomy. But it was plagued by a “noise”, uniform and coming from everywhere, which they couldn’t identify. They ruled out everything: galaxies, aliens, nuclear tests, New York, the telescope itself, and even the pigeons that roosted on it. Eventually, they realised what it must be: the background radiation lingering from the big bang.

They got a Nobel for that. You got the knowledge that when you see that dancing static, about 1 per cent of it is caused by the birth of the universe.

Right now, as it happens, you are spinning through the universe at 4,400,000 km/h – but you can’t feel the breeze of it. About 100 trillion neutrinos, travelling near the speed of light, pass through your body every second, but it doesn’t even tickle.

But for another month you can turn on your television and watch the remnants of the explosion that created the universe. It is grey, and it is monotonous, but it’s a marvel of a sort, having endured for billions of years.

Not unlike The Late Late Show.


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