Guest blog: Bucket List Astronomy Class, The true story behind WiFi

Posted by Nicole Kiefert
on Thursday, August 10, 2017

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Australian Astronomy, But Were Afraid to Ask: PART II - The True Story Behind Wi-Fi,

The BLAsT Class with Rob Hollow (back row, left), Dr. Ron Ekers (under the 'I' of CSIRO), and Dr. John O'Sullivan (to the right of Ekers) // Photo by Samuel I. Beard, Jr.
 By Rayne Horton and David Collicott

While visiting the CSIRO Astronomy headquarters in Australia, our study abroad class had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Dr. Ron Ekers and Dr. John O'Sullivan. These phenomenal men gave us a tag-team presentation about turning “Black Holes into Wi-Fi.” It was strange to learn that the formation of black holes in the early universe was related to the beginning stages of the wireless connections we make today worldwide, and we wanted to hear that story.

Dr. Ekers started his PhD research in 1963 using the Parkes Radio Telescope, which we had visited the week before. Dr. O’Sullivan had done his work in electrical engineering at the University of Sydney. Both gentlemen were part of the team responsible for Wi-Fi.

The whole thing began with Stephen Hawking, who had the idea that black holes could explode once they lost enough mass, and they could only lose mass if the weird ideas about things happening on the tiniest scales were right. Finding exploding black holes, Ekers explained, could best be done because of the particular radio wavelengths they would emit. But radio waves going through space would experience lots of interference and disturbances, so O’Sullivan and his team set out on a mission to fix that problem. They engineered a way to sort out the various radio frequencies in a smeared out signal.

Dr. O'Sullivan tries to describe the incredible number of professional and personal connections required to help us connect professionally and personally // Photo by Samuel I. Beard, Jr.
Their search for exploding black holes ultimately failed, but O’Sullivan later tried to find a commercial application for what they had developed in their hunt. At the time, there was some wireless communication for computers, but it didn’t perform well because of the interference and smearing out of the waves from the environment. But O’Sullivan realized that what worked for the search exploding black holes would work in a building. The first Wi-Fi chips were created in the 1990s, blossoming into the connection we know and love today in the early 2000s.

Both Ekers and O’Sullivan emphasized that Wi-Fi was made possible by a huge team effort, not just a single individual. Half a century the first chip was developed, radio astronomy was born. It gradually gained popularity, particularly in Australia, creating teams of astronomers and engineers, and ultimately resulting in something that is now in almost every house around the world. It's crazy to think how we really take it for granted. In fact, the apartments that we stayed at during this part of our trip didn't have Wi-Fi, and that completely rearranged how we did things for our class. We saw the people who helped invent it, and we couldn’t even use it! 

Dr. Ekers discusses his circuitous career path from quasars to black holes to WiFi. // Photo by Samuel I. Beard, Jr.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: 

My name is David Collicott. I’m a junior at SHSU majoring in criminal justice. One of the reasons why I took this class is because … who doesn't want to take a trip to Australia and see things that would otherwise only be visible from a computer screen?

I’m Rayne Horton, and I am currently a sophomore at SHSU. My major is psychology with a double-minor in agriculture business and animal science. I decided to participate in this study abroad trip because it was a wonderful opportunity to come to Australia and to go to Wyoming to witness the total solar eclipse!

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