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Non Sequitur Fridays

Let There Be Dark

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistian's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Dave Cole is a customer champion at Wistia. His last Non Sequitur was about the physics of growing a business.

Here at Wistia, we talk about lighting a lot. But today is Non-Sequitur Friday, so dang it, let's talk about its complete opposite: darkness.

Darkness, in its purest form, is the absence of light. In an interview with Bloomberg, my good buddy Elon Musk explained it best:

"When I was a little kid I was really scared of the dark, but then I came to understand that dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength, 400 – 700 nanometers. Then I thought: it's really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. Then I wasn't afraid of the dark after that."

Well said, Elon.

As it turns out, darkness is much more than just something to not be afraid of – it's something to be downright treasured. While lighting is super important for things like video production, darkness can be an amazing asset for other purposes, like photography. Specifically, deep-space photography. (Oh yeah, we're going there).

For example, want to know what happens when you point one of the most powerful cameras on the planet (er, actually off the planet) at one of the darkest patches of the night sky? You get this:

That, my friends, is the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field: the deepest mankind has ever looked into the far reaches of the universe.

Every single feature in that image is an entire galaxy, much like our very own Milky Way. Each is a super-massive amalgamation of matter and energy, containing billions of stars, planets, and (if you're the betting type) lifeforms. There are over 10,000 galaxies pictured there, in what once appeared to be an empty speck of nothingness in the night sky.

While the stars we can see with our naked eyes are fascinating on their own, the real wonders of the universe live in the darkness between them. We're able to see those galaxies in the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field for one very specific reason: that dark patch of sky lacks noise.

What… the heck… is noise?

Noise, in the science-y sense, is the wayward mess of background signals that make it difficult to identify the meaningful ones. We often hear about noise in the context of sound, but the core concept applies equally well to many other types of signals.

Take, for instance, social signals, the signals we emit from ourselves into society to give the people in our lives information about who we are, what we're passionate about, and what makes us unique.

Too often, social signals are masked by rigid policies and procedures. Things like dress codes, email templates, call scripts, etc., while useful in some ways, can overwhelm an individual's identity with noise that makes people indistinguishable from one another.

When noise is added to a person's social signals, it can be hard to tell the difference between what came from that person themselves, and what behavior or pseudo-self-expression was imposed upon them. But when those policies are relaxed, and the noise fades into darkness, we're able to emerge and express ourselves as the people we are at heart. This has a wonderful side effect, best put into words by Brendan as quoted Alyce's blog post, Dressing For Startup Life:

"The more different we all are, the more aware we'll become of what we truly share."

Much like the galaxies revealed in the darkness between the stars, the people in our lives become brighter, clearer, and more powerful when we can see them without interference. Instead of only being able to see that we share a uniform, or a job title, being ourselves and expressing what makes us individuals lets us finally see what we have in common from within.

Finding the signal in the noise

If the light from those galaxies in the Ultra-Deep Field were to make a close pass by a bright star on its way toward us, the unique signal from each galaxy would be almost completely masked by the light emitted by that noisy star. In a sense, the nearby star's photon-noise could create the illusion that those galaxies don't even exist.

The same thing happens when you try to look up at the stars in a city. Here's what the night sky looked like from the roof of my apartment in Boston just before midnight last night:

Majestic, I know.

For comparison, this is what the night sky looks like in the Australian outback, free from the light pollution of an urban environment:

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all agree to turn off the city lights one night and finally see the light hiding in that darkness?

The new black is really, ridiculously black

Much to my chagrin, we're not all lucky enough to have the night sky of the Australian outback in our backyard. But we do have technology, which can enable us to see some pretty amazing things.

Earlier this week, scientists at Surrey NanoSystems in the UK announced that they've developed the darkest material in existence. Behold, Vantablack:

VANTA stands for Vertically Aligned Carbon NanoTube Array, which is just what it sounds like: a whole bunch of teeny tiny carbon nanotubes packed together like a dense forest. It works a bit like a Chinese finger trap: the light goes into the array of tubes, and it can't get out.

To begin to understand just how black Vantablack is, it's important to note that the entire sheet of tin foil in the image above, including the portion covered by Vantablack, is crinkled into ridges and valleys.

You cannot see the contours on the black portion, however, because any light that would bounce off to indicate its shape is being almost completely absorbed. It's like a super-powerful soundproofing panel, but for light. In fact, Vantablack absorbs 99.965% of all electromagnetic radiation, including visible light.

Since you're currently looking at that image on a screen, you can't actually tell just how profoundly black the material is, as the light bouncing off that portion of your screen is corrupting its true nature. When you look at Vantablack in person with nothing but empty space and air molecules between your eyes and the substance, it's apparently like staring into a black hole.

The reason I bring up Vantablack (aside from the sheer coolness of this technical achievement in materials science) is that in a funny way, this ultra-dark nano-scale material will enable us to see even more light on the grand scale of the universe. By coating the surfaces of sensitive instruments like powerful space telescopes in Vantablack, scientists will be able to take the noise level in images like the Ultra-Deep Field to extreme new lows – much like audio engineers using specialized techniques to reduce background noise in their recordings.

"Blinded by the light" no more!

Vantablack is one shining example of our ability to generate darkness and reveal the signal in the noise. It removes the distractions from our experience, and lets us look upon the world with a sensitive eye to see the finer, more important details. And just like Vantablack can reduce noise in light, we have many (much less exotic and expensive) tools at our disposal to darken the noisy background signals in other areas of our world.

In a sense, Vantablack has the same effect on light as the act of meditation does on our clarity of thought, and cleaning up the desktop has on our ability to focus on the task at hand. Wherever noisy signals cloud our vision, noise-reducing tools like Vantablack can help us find clarity.

So here's to darkness. Darkness is the foundation upon which all of the beautiful colors of the universe are able to shine and be seen. It's the quiet emptiness that lets us hear the sweet sounds of music, and it's the absence of rules and regulations that allows us to be ourselves and finally get to know each other.

If you could remove all of the noise from one aspect of your daily life, and let the distractions fade to black, what signal would you see?

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