space

My father worked at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ in the late 1950s and into the early 1960s.  Bell Labs was where the photovoltaic cell, the laser, the transistor and many other discoveries were born.

In 1961, my Dad wanted to move us to Holmdel, NJ where a new Bell Labs was located. That is where a 20-foot horn-reflector antenna was built to listen to the Milky Way. What the antenna was hearing was a constant hiss, though it had been built to avoid picking up extraneous interference.

This was in 1964.  Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias were two young astronomers working there and they couldn’t figure out what was hissing in their radio-wave measurements of the sky. Radio noise from New York City? Remnants of nuclear test detonations? Pigeons nesting in the antenna horn.

In 1931, the labs had made a foundation for radio astronomy when Karl Jansky was investigating the origins of static on long-distance shortwave communications and discovered that radio waves were being emitted from the center of the galaxy.

This was a time when there were two competing theories of the origin of the universe. The Steady State theory proposed that the universe was essentially unchanging and would look the same from every vantage point within it. the opposing theory was called the Big Bang theory. Proponents of the Big Bang theorized that the universe had begun with a massive explosion that created immense amounts of radiation, which gradually cooled but continued to expand from the force of the explosion.

The hissing interference persisted and the astronomers decided to ignore it and continue with their measurements.

I only discovered this history via a recent article by Leslie Garisto Pfaff.

 

Robert Wilson with the horn-reflector antenna in Holmdel – Photo by Christopher Lake

 

Penzias was told that he should connect with Robert Dicke at Princeton University. He gave him a call and talked to him while he and his fellow physicists were eating lunch.  Dicke realized by the end of the call that the Bell Labs astronomers had found evidence of the Big Bang theory in their microwave radiation. The hiss was radiation left over from the Big Bang (Cosmic Microwave Background). Wilson and Penzias wrote a paper about their discovery for publication.

The 1960s are not so long ago but back then, cosmology—the study of the origin and development of the universe—was quite new.  There was a Nobel Prize for Wilson and Penzias’s discovery which made the Big Bang theory the accepted origin story. The universe had a discrete beginning some 13.8 billion years ago with a an infinitesimally small bundle of immense energy that exploded and has continued to expand ever since.

Holmdel’s Crawford Hill still is home to the horn-reflector antenna which Pfaff describes in her article as looking like “a prop out of a 1950s science-fiction film. It doesn’t turn its ear to the cosmos any more., but it reminds us that the Big Bang was confirmed in new Jersey.

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