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The beauty in television snow

I’ve been looking at different complex systems lately; I’m becoming more and more fascinated with a term called “Emergence.” It’s when you perceive a complex and beautiful pattern from a huge amount of individual, simple objects guided by simple rules.

You see this in flocking birds, insect swarms, ant colonies, blizzards, long wispy filaments, diaphanous undulating clouds, complex subterranean architecture, and sheets of rain or snow. Even consciousness could be an emergent pattern given the simple actions of individual neurons and the overwhelming complexity of a central nervous system. It’s all around us, inescapable, and inexhaustible in the never-ending fractile of nature.

But one place I haven’t seen the beauty of all these complex systems is in the crappy 1940s to 1990s era television snow. That is, until now. This humble and annoying side effect of technology can be as majestic as a perfect night sky if you understand what you’re looking at.

So what is television snow?

These days most if not all viewing devices filter out the background static of bad reception and instead display a relaxing, often blinding, blue screen. But reaching back into my childhood I remember the infamous television snow and white noise that accompanied my two channels of cathode ray escapism. I lived way out in the country, so the two channels we did get had spotty reception at best, leaving the rest of the channels open to receive messages from beyond.

What causes it?

Now here’s where it gets cool: background radiation. But not just any background radiation, like from the mantle of the Earth or from the Sun…this stuff is as old as time itself and is known as “Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation,” left over from the big bang.

What’s it doing on our old TVs?

As it turns out, if you’re a ray of light travelling through empty space, the further you travel away from other forms of matter, the more stretchy and floppy space becomes. So as you travel through these vast intergalactic distances you become all stretched out as well. As it happens the big bang (as you can imagine) was unbelievably energetic—so energetic, in fact, that the gamma rays coming out of it caused most of the matter in the early universe to fly at almost the speed of light itself.

Since we perceive the observable outer edge of the universe to be about 13 billion light years away, its light has become all floppy and less energetic. It’s only coincidence that it happens to be stretched out to roughly the same frequency our television stations use to broadcast Three’s Company reruns.

What’s so beautiful about random static?

What you see as crappy reception is actually the outermost ripple in the endless cosmic pond, silent and ever-expanding into the void. Its sole effect is tearing apart dimensions within the vacuum and creating our reality one quantum super string at a time.

The problem with our old TV sets is that they don’t supply a big enough window to see the true majesty of what we’re witnessing. Instead of watching a distant tornado slowly descend toward the ground and start kicking up debris, we instead see only the debris flying straight at our heads. Not very pretty. But take a step back and watch it dance across the country side.

Perspective is all it takes to see the beauty in television snow.

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