What are the Meccas of Modernity? Nicholas Shakespeare in „Intelligent Life magazine“ offers an original answer, a lyrical ode to astronomy, Darwin and: Tasmania. Tasmania is where astronomist Grote Reber based his search for extraterrestrial life with a radio telescope. Not in spite of Tasmania’s remoteness. But because of it is sparsely populated. Sometimes a Mecca has to be far from the urban centers where its admirers live. Writes Shakespeare:
„The inventor of the satellite dish and pioneer of radio astronomy. Who had lived in Tasmania for almost 50 years, renting a field on an isolated farm where he built a telescope to rival Swift.
I’m suddenly back on terra firma. “Where is this field exactly?”
A byword for remoteness, Tasmania is itself a sort of outer space on earth, but also one of those places far away from the so-called “centre” which intersects, even illuminates, our own history.
In his Illinois backyard, Reber determined to chart this void. Aged 22, he read an article by Karl Jansky, a young engineer briefly employed by the Bell Telephone Company to investigate radio interference on transatlantic cables: Jansky had detected a fuzzy stream of radio signals that appeared to issue from the sun. Reber, anxious to follow this up, failed to interest any university or observatory in giving him funds, and yet if he believed in anything it was himself: “I consulted with myself and decided to build a dish.” Using his own materials – chickenwire and hardwood mainly – he erected a 31ft parabolic reflector in the adjacent yard. What for a decade remained the world’s first and only radio-telescope, and the model for all satellite receiving dishes, stands now at the entrance of the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia. At the time, his mother found it good for hanging the washing on.
For two years, Reber spent his nights with ears cupped to the skies–the interference from the spark plugs of cars making it impossible to listen by day. Then, one night in 1938, Reber turned down the frequency and heard a “cosmic noise” coming from the direction of the Milky Way.
For two decades, Reber sat in his Antipodean hut, eating sweet turnips that he had picked from somebody else’s paddock and poring over the meaning of signals that had travelled 5,000m years or more, emitted before our planet existed. But whatever the signals communicated to him, he failed to communicate to others. In 1977, he published a paper in which he wrote: “The material universe extends beyond the greatest distances we can observe optically or by radio means. It is boundless…” One year later, he abandoned his hut.“