Sunday, May 30, 2010

It Came From Outer Space?

Believe it or not, the Dolby noise-reduction system in the lowly cassette tape had their origins in radio astronomy work, where no hi-fi has gone before?

By: Ringo Bones

Most knowledgeable audiophiles – and probably even most radio astronomers – don’t know that Ray Dolby, of audio tape noise-reduction fame, did his early work in radio astronomy. This little noted and remembered factoid served as the basis for his inspiration in developing the Dolby-B type noise-reduction system. The very system that lifted the lowly cassette tape – developed by Philips as a lowly dictation recording medium – into the realm of convenient high fidelity audio home recording medium, thus earning Ray Dolby enormous wealth.

Ray Dolby’s early work in radio astronomy made him develop his electronic skills in developing ways to extract very weak cosmic signals from background radiation noise – and the increasingly “loud” Earth-based radio broadcast chatter. By the end of the Cold War, many radio astronomy communities had asked Dolby Labs – as a philanthropic gesture – to honor its founder’s origins and further Ray Dolby’s earlier work by applying some of their know-how toward reducing RF noise here on Earth. Particularly at frequencies of interest to radio astronomers.

By the end of 2009, something strange happened. Frank Drake – father of the Drake Equation often used to compute for the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe other than our own – had surmised that given the current trend to fiber-optic bound Internet telecommunications, our planet will soon be invisible to radio telescopes elsewhere in the Universe. Looks like those old Star Trek original series broadcast will soon be the last RF signals that we’ll be “accidentally” sending to space once Internet TV comes on line and gains worldwide acceptance. Looks like Ray Dolby’s noise-reduction system and analog TV signals streaming out into interstellar space will inevitably be consigned to the dustbin of history.