Everything Noise

“I like everything noise.”

Jonas Zmuidzinas’s new favorite saying is a phrase that’s been running through his mind a lot lately. A physicist at Caltech who develops instrumentation for use in astronomy, he spends an inordinate amount of his waking hours thinking about noise—but not in the way you might expect. For the average person, thinking about noise might mean trying to ignore the loud neighbors on a Sunday morning or using sound-cancelling headphones on a flight full of babies.

But for many scientists and engineers, a broader definition also assigns the term to the fluctuations in a measured signal that can obscure or reduce its clarity. “For people like myself who build instruments and detectors, noise is at the heart of what we do,” says Zmuidzinas. That’s because in engineering, for example, fluctuations, or noise, can arise from the random motions of atoms or electrons, and can manifest as heat or electronic static. And that can lead to malfunctioning machines. A clearer understanding of noise sources and ways to minimize it in circuits can lead to more efficient microchips and to telescopes that are capable of probing structures in the universe that were previously beyond reach.

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