NOISE: A Force to Reckon With

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
We encounter noise (random errors) in every human endeavor. I discuss here in simple terms the power of noise in affecting the past, present, and future development of events whether humans or otherwise. It ends with speculations on the ultimate source of noise.

Submitted: February 04, 2016

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Submitted: February 04, 2016



NOISE:  A Force to Reckon With


Everyone hates noise.  Very little good is said about it; few appreciate it.  Yet, it is as potent and natural force as any of the other natural forces, among them, gravity, even if it isn't generally recognized as such.  When we delve deeply into it, attributes emerge that may surprise us.

People commonly associate noise with sound.  We have all, at one time or another, heard honking car horns, firecrackers at Fourth of July celebrations, and airplanes landing and taking off.  Sound can be so loud as to cause distraction, and even physical distress.  But what noise is sometimes depends on the listener.  A baby's cry may be a call for help to his or her mother but a nuisance to a sleeping neighbor.  This type of sound has an easily identifiable source (in the example, the baby crying) and is termed systematic or regular noise.  Systematic noise is easily eliminated or reduced by turning off the source (comforting the baby) or moving away from it.  That type of noise is not the subject of this essay.

Noise doesn't have to be loud or identifiable to be troublesome.  It can be a mild hiss or sound in the background that can be easily ignored unless one is trying to communicate with someone with a low voice.  This kind of noise is termed random. The exact source is not known and can't be known as it can arise from many often obscure and/or unavoidable sources.  Sound is nothing more than vibrations or waves in air.  Anything causing vibrations in air produces sound.  However, only certain frequencies of these vibrations impact our ears in a way that registers as hearing.  Other frequencies may exist, but we cannot hear them.

There is no dearth of things that produce vibrations in air resulting in random noise.  People's beating hearts, breathing lungs, animals moving, wind turbulence caused by temperature variations, movement of earth from internal or external influences, water flowing in rivers and oceans, are just a few examples.  When we want to communicate with sound, random noise is superimposed on the sound we are using for communication.  The sound we use to communicate with is called our signal.  The superimposition of random noise upon our signal introduces random errors in communication.  In this sense, the noise and the errors are the same thing.  Since we do not know the exact source of random noise, it cannot be entirely eliminated.  The errors it introduces, however, can be reduced but generally at high cost.  We can make our signal stronger, so that the relative strength of random noise is weaker or, in scientific language, increasing the signal to noise ratio.  For example, we communicate better in a noisy room by talking louder.  Our signal is stronger compared to the random noises in the room. 

However, the fundamental point about random noise or error is that no matter how hard we try or where we may hide, it cannot be made zero.  Noise or random error is not limited to sound but is present in all human endeavors.  It is omnipresent.

With the advent of electronics in the twentieth century, it was found that sound can be converted into electronic signals and vice versa; for examples, a microphone or a telephone.  As a result the random noise in sound converts to random noise or errors in the electronic signal.  However, any electronic circuit has its own "noise," random variations, again of unknown origins, and hard to eliminate entirely.  This adds to the noise of sound, making random errors even worse when one converts sound into electric signals.  This is evident from our conversations on the telephone.  They are not as clear as when we converse in person.

Not only sound, light also has built in random errors or noise, a fact not appreciated by many laymen.  Our inability to see as clearly in a dim room as in a well-lit one is primarily due to random errors or noise in the light itself.  Light is produced when excited atoms decay and emit energy we see as light.  However, the decay process is random; when excited atoms will decay in any unit of time is unpredictable.  As a result, sources of light have built in random fluctuations or errors.  These errors reduce in magnitude as the amount of signal (light) is increased but can never be made zero because they come from unknown sources and unknown causes.

The biggest surprise may be that random noise is present in all biological systems as well as in the world of physics.  The fundamental unit of biological systems is the gene or its major component DNA.  Small random changes in DNA structure arise during gene duplication and are called random mutations.  Evolution in the biological world is the result of random variations (mutations) or duplication noise.  We might say that without noise there would be no diversity in life forms and little evolution.  Mankind is considered by many to be the ultimate achievement of evolution.  All human endeavors, political, economic, social, and recreational are full of random errors.  Our history and future are intertwined as much with random events as with organized forces.

No matter where we look, the physical world is full of noise.  Can the laws of physics give us some clue to the origin of random noise or variations?  It turns out that Quantum Theory which governs the behavior of matter at the atomic level and has stood its ground for over a century has the answer.  According to this now well-established theory and the cornerstone of many scientific advances of the twentieth century, the behavior of even the simplest system, for instance one electron, cannot be predicted precisely.  It is governed by probability.  Whenever events are determined by probabilities, some amount of uncertainty arises.  It's well know that if a coin is tossed once, the probability of heads-up or tails-up is exactly half.    However, if the coin is tossed ten times, the outcome will not always heads-up 5 times and tails-up 5 times, but may be quite different; for example,7 heads-up and 3 tails-up.  In this case the random error is 2 or 40%.  If the same coin is tossed 10 times again, the result may be different, say, 6 heads-up and 4 tails-up.  If this experiment (tossing the coin 10 times) is repeated 100 times more, on average the result will be 5 heads-up and 5 tails-up.  But the result of many of the individual 10 time tosses will vary from that average.  The deviation from the mean is the random error.  It the coin is tossed 1000 times, the random error will decrease, but it will not reduce to zero no matter how many times the coin is tossed.  In the case of electrons or other elementary particles, the probability of interactions is not random but dictated by the laws of physics.  The observable signal (light, sound, or any other measurable physical quantity) results from millions or billions of interactions at the atomic level, each determined by a given probability.  The net result is that the signal is produced with random noise.

Even a vacuum that is supposed to have nothing in it is full of random noise.  A vacuum, by definition, contains no matter or has zero energy.  Quantum Theory predicts that zero energy is the average of a vacuum, but there will be random errors, referred to as quantum noise.  All kinds of positive and negative pairs of particles constantly appear and disappear due to the quantum noise. For example, zero equals 0, (1-1), (2-2), and so on. The so-called "Big Bang" is the parent of everything in this universe.  Currently, it is hypothesized that it arose from random noise in a vacuum.  Thus, noise may be the mother and father of everything.  It seems that it's not only omnipresent but omnipotent.

So, noise is omnipresent, may be omnipotent, and the Creator of this Universe.  Aren't these a few of the many attributes of God?  Is God synonymous with noise or errors?


Enough noise about noise.  Just one question.  Should we hate it or celebrate it?

© Copyright 2019 Ramesh Chandra. All rights reserved.

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