(Continued on page 201)
Wilson in the
receiver room (
opposite page) of the
Bell Labs antenna
on Crawford Hill,
point in Monmouth
County. It would be
hard to imagine a
less likely location
for the launch of a
revolution in cosmology.
They thought it might be pigeon droppings. In May 1964,
Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias—two young astronomers
working at Bell Labs in Holmdel—were taking radio-wave
measurements of the sky using Bell’s 20-foot horn-reflector
antenna when they encountered something unexpected. They
had designed a measuring system that would, in theory, eliminate superfluous background noise, yet when they pointed the
antenna at the Milky Way, it picked up a constant,
After ruling out a variety of suspects, including
radio noise from New York City and the remnants
of a recent nuclear test detonation, they concluded
there had to be a problem with the antenna itself.
Noticing that a pair of nesting pigeons had taken
up residence in the horn-shaped antenna, Wilson and Penzias began to wonder if the droppings
could be the culprit. But after trapping and releasing the birds and cleaning the antenna, the stubborn hiss persisted.
Flummoxed by the source of the interference,
the two astronomers decided to ignore the problem
and move ahead with their measurements. For the
next year, they continued to search for evidence of
a gaseous halo around the Milky Way. Neither suspected that they had inadvertently made a discovery that would shake up the scientific community,
alter our vision of the cosmos and garner them a
They never did find any halo. But one day in
1965, Penzias was discussing the hiss with a colleague who suggested he get in touch with Robert
Dicke, a physicist at Princeton. At the time, physicists tended to back one of two competing theo-ries of the origin of the universe. The Steady State
theory—proposed in 1948 by scientists Hermann
Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle—held that the
universe was essentially unchanging and would
look the same from every vantage point within it.
Wilson himself started out a Steady State believer.
Opposing that was something called the Big Bang
theory, an idea first posited by Belgian cosmologist
George Lemaitre, who 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
Penzias telephoned Dicke at Princeton, and
reached him in his lab as he and his team were
eating lunch together. During the call, Dicke’s as-
sistants heard him speak the words “atmospheric
radiation,” “sky brightness” and “antenna tempera-
ture”—all highly relevant to the work they were do-
ing. David Wilkinson, one of the assistants and later
an eminent physicist, would tell Wilson that when
Dicke put down the phone, he turned to his team.
“Boys,” Dicke told them, “we’ve been scooped.”
Dicke had been searching for evidence of the
Big Bang theory, which he expected to find in the
form of microwave radiation.
As subsequent tests confirmed, the hiss that
had pestered Wilson and Penzias was, in fact, ra-
diation left over from the Big Bang. Known as the
Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), it was the
very evidence Dicke had been searching for.
Wilson responded to Dicke’s explanation with
relief. “So they had what seemed to us this slightly crazy theory that the Big Bang was the source
of the radiation, and we were extremely happy to
have some source for it,” he says. He and Penzias
wrote a paper about their discovery and sent it off
to the peer-reviewed scientific publication
Astrophysical Journal Letters, not certain how the scientific world might respond—if at all.
Tall, slim and soft spoken, Wilson tends to
avoid hyperbole. He’s as eager to show off the newly installed solar panels on his house in Holmdel—
he and his wife, Betty, he says, both drive hybrids
and “are sort of trying to be environmentalists”—
as he is to describe the events that led to his receiving the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978. But when
he gets to talking about it, the details are all still
there, as vivid as ever.
EXACTLY A YEAR AFTER THEY FIRST heard the
hiss, Wilson says, his father, visiting from Houston, got up early and headed into Holmdel village to pick up the day’s New York Times. “There,
on the front page,” says Wilson, “was a picture of
our antenna and an article about this new result in
cosmology.” The story, headlined “Signals Imply