Monday, May 24, 2004

The limitless world of information 

And the limits of politics
It doesn't take much to get Reed to hold forth on his strong, well-articulated political and social beliefs. But when it comes to spectrum, he speaks most passionately as a scientist. "Photons, whether they are light photons, radio photons, or gamma-ray photons, simply do not interfere with one another," he explains. "They pass through one another."

Reed uses the example of a pinhole camera, or camera obscura: If a room is sealed against light except for one pinhole, an image of the outside will be projected against the opposite wall. "If photons interfered with one another as they squeezed through that tiny hole, we wouldn't get a clear image on that back wall," Reed says.

If you whine that it's completely counterintuitive that a wave could squeeze through a pinhole and "reorganize" itself on the other side, Reed nods happily and then piles on: "If photons can pass through one another, then they aren't actually occupying space at all, since the definition of 'occupying' is 'displacing.' So, yes, it's counterintuitive. It's quantum mechanics."

Surprisingly, the spectrum-as-color metaphor turns out to be not nearly as confounding to what's left of common sense. "Radio and light are the same thing and follow the same laws," Reed says. "They're distinguished by what we call frequency." Frequency, he explains, is really just the energy level of the photons. The human eye detects different frequencies as different colors. So, in licensing frequencies to broadcasters, we are literally regulating colors. Crayola may own the names of the colors it's invented, and Pantone may own the standard numbers by which digital designers refer to colors, but only the FCC can give you an exclusive license to a color itself.

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