When two 20-somethings slung a wire across rooftops in Boston, they were hoping to hear each other’s voices transmitted across the line. It worked, and they did, but in the process, they also picked up a far more exotic sound: powerful radio waves emitted from the sun.
Alexander Graham Bell was 26 and working in a fifth-floor attic when he spoke those famous words into a mouthpiece: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”
The message to his assistant was transmitted, Bell wrote in his journal: “To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.”
Any charged wire becomes not only a transmitter but an antenna, and Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, an earnest 22-year-old he had plucked from a machine shop, spent hours listening to the strange chirps and whistles coming from their accidental antenna. Using the first telephone, it turned out, the young men were actually dialed into the sun. Watson correctly guessed that he was picking up activity on the surface of the sun through its radio waves.
Fifty years later Bell hired an engineer to study those noises, ushering in a new age of space exploration — radio astronomy — and prodding astronomers to scale up their antennas, connecting them to loudspeakers, and catch the radio waves made by stars and planets. New insights into the solar system were unlocked not through looking but listening.
Space, they discovered, makes a hissing noise. Jupiter, when carried through short waves of radiation, sounds like pebbles thrown on a tin roof. The sun roars like the sea. And a pulsar, which is a pulsating radio star, beats like a drum — the faster the star spins, the faster the beat.
To hear these celestial structures is to know them in a new way, to render them “a little more tangible,” said Honor Harger, a New Zealand sound artist who spoke about this field of study on a TED stage. “It’s through listening that we’ve come to uncover some of the universe’s most important secrets,” she said.
Her words came through my iPhone last Friday, via a podcast, and resonated deeply with the lost art I have been pondering this autumn: listening. This is a season that call us to quiet, to hear the crinkling of leaves and the clapping of wind whipping through cornfields.
The Holy Father has charged us to be a “listening church,” but our noisy Information Age makes it hard to listen well, and my generation may suffer the most. We consume sound bites and snapchats, headlines and thumbnails. We are stuffed so full that we forget how to be empty and attuned: to listen to each other, to the Mass, to ourselves and to God.
How embarrassing to think of the many times I missed out on really hearing others because I talked over them or missed the question they were begging to be asked, because I made it about myself or reinforcing something comfortable rather than challenging myself to go somewhere new.
When we set down our phones and set aside our agendas, we can listen in a transformative way: We can love better and learn more.
“When it’s God who is speaking,” St. John Vianney once said, “the proper way to behave is to imitate someone who has an irresistible curiosity and who listens at keyholes. You must listen to everything God says at the keyhole of your heart.”
I love the image of a curious child, snooping and sleuthing, pressing his ear to a keyhole in hopes of picking something up. That’s how we should lean in and listen to God, eager to discern every whisper.
That’s how we should approach the world around us, observing and appreciating — neighbors, grandparents, colleagues, cashiers — and listening at all the keyholes.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.