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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, scientists who overcame pigeons -- and Hitler

Bell Laboratories is one of the most successful research facilities in the world. In its first 90 years, Bell Labs has been connected to eight Nobel Prizes. Wikipedia noted, "Researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device, information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language, S programming language and the C++ programming language."
Left off the list is proving the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe. How a telephone company's researchers came to do that involves an obsolete satellite system, pigeons, and an escape from Nazi Germany.
Satellites are a key to modern telecommunications. In the early 1960s, NASA and AT&T teamed up to develop a system of metalized balloons flying in low orbit, which would relay -- bounce -- signals from one terrestrial point to another. Project Echo worked, but not as well as active satellites, which supplanted it.
Bell Labs had built a large horn antenna at Holmdel, New Jersey, for the Echo project. Two young radio astronomers -- Robert Woodrow Wilson and Arno Allan Penzias -- would use this antenna for other research, and accidentally discover the origin of the universe.
Wilson was born in Houston, Texas, on January 10, 1936. he attended public schools, took piano lessons, and played trombone in his high school's marching band. In winter, he skated with the Houston Figure Skating Club; in summer he visited an aunt and uncle's farm in west Texas. It was a nice middle class life.
Penzias was born in Munich, Germany, on April 26, 1933. His parents were Jewish. A few weeks before his sixth birthday, his mother put him and his younger brother on a train headed out of Germany. She instructed him to take care of his brother. In his Nobel biography nearly 40 years later, Penzias wrote, " I remember telling him, 'jetzt sind wir allein' as the train pulled out."
"Jetzt sind wir allein" -- now we are alone. They really were not. They were part of the Kindertransport program to get Jewish children out of Europe before the Nazi Holocaust began. Roughly 10,000 children escaped. The most noteworthy are the 669 children that Sir Nicholas Winton helped escape from Prague. But many others sacrificed and put their lives at risk to make this exodus possible.
Penzias was extremely lucky. Both his parents made it to England within weeks and they headed for America. Reuniting with his parents was a highlight of his time in England. In his Nobel biography, he wrote, "The only other noteworthy event in the six or so months we spent in England, awaiting passage to America, occurred one morning in a makeshift schoolroom. At that moment, I suddenly realized that I could read the open page of the (English) school book I had been staring at."
A Nobel career was launched. He would attend City College of New York -- that Harvard for the Lower East Side, where he initially lived. After two years as a radar officer in the Army, he attended Columbia where he earned a PhD in physics, which unlocked the door to Bell Labs for him.
This is not to diminish Wilson's achievements. He earned his degree from Rice University and did his graduate work at Cal Tech.
Bell Labs teamed the two up at Holmdel. This was a remarkable management decision to give a couple of young physicists. The end of Project Echo was the opportunity of a lifetime for the radio astronomers.
"With the antenna no longer tied to commercial applications, it was now free for research. Penzias and Wilson jumped at the chance to use it to analyze radio signals from the spaces between galaxies. But when they began to employ it, they encountered a persistent 'noise' of microwaves that came from every direction. If they were to conduct experiments with the antenna, they would have to find a way to remove the static," according to the American Physical Society.
"Penzias and Wilson tested everything they could think of to rule out the source of the radiation racket. They knew it wasn't radiation from the Milky Way or extraterrestrial radio sources. They pointed the antenna towards New York City to rule out 'urban interference,' and did analysis to dismiss possible military testing from their list.
"Then they found droppings of pigeons nesting in the antenna. They cleaned out the mess and tried removing the birds and discouraging them from roosting, but they kept flying back. 'To get rid of them, we finally found the most humane thing was to get a shotgun…and at very close range [we] just killed them instantly. It's not something I'm happy about, but that seemed like the only way out of our dilemma,' said Penzias. And so the pigeons left with a smaller bang, but the noise remained, coming from every direction."
As a Texan, Wilson more likely than Penzias did the shooting. About this time, the duo realized they had something else that was bigger than pigeon droppings.
"The two men realized in May of 1964 that what they heard was not instrumental noise but microwave radiation coming from all directions uniformly. Penzias and Wilson calculated the radiation's temperature as about 3.5 degrees Kelvin," reported.
That's pretty durned cold.
Princeton physicists Robert Dicke and Jim Peebles were set to begin experiments to test their theory that if the Big Bang had occurred, there would be low level radiation found throughout the universe. Informed of the Penzias-Wilson discovery, Dicke said, "Well boys, we've been scooped."
Being scientists, they did not rest on their laurels. reported, "More experiments followed, confirming that the radiation was unchanging when measured from any direction. Even after the duo received the Nobel Prize, they continued to collaborate on research into intergalactic hydrogen, galactic radiation and interstellar abundances of the isotopes."
Wilson and Penzias received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978, sharing it with Russian Pyotr Kapitsa for unrelated work. Arno Penzias was one of a dozen Jewish immigrants or children of Jewish immigrants who won a Nobel Prize after graduating from City College of New York between 1933 and 1954. At the time, Ivy League schools had a limit on the number of Jewish students they would admit as underclassmen. Today these institutions discriminate against American students of Asian descent.
Penzias continued to work until age 65 when he retired from Bell Labs. He has become involved in the political freedom of scientists. He also skis and enjoys his three grandchildren. Wilson remained at Bell Laboratories until 1994, when he was named a senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he remains today, according to Wikipedia.
And as for Sir Winton, he is alive and well and living in England, and celebrated his 106th birthday on May 19, 2015. America owes a great deal to England, particularly its Rule of Law, and unwritten constitution that protects the civil liberties of its people. Mother England gave us the solid foundation to build a great nation of exceptional people.
As for that accidental discovery of proof of the Big Bang Theory, any engineer will tell you there is no such thing as an accident. This is simply an event that required a remarkable blend of remarkable men. If the Nazis had their way, none of this might have happened. Let us bear that in mind. The price of evil is infinite.


  1. Jewish people have won a lot of Nobel Prizes and considering the small demographic, they are way over-represented. It makes you wonder what would have happened if Hitler would have harnessed that brain power rather than killing it. .

  2. Hitler wasn't that intelligent. Hate can prevent one from being smart.

  3. God bless 20th century America. Hope I will say the same in 50 years.
    To nurture the gifted who elevate our world, that is our goal. But they must be humble that they stand on the shoulders of giants and toward the working men and women who allow the economic space that lets them live amongst the stars.

  4. Bell Labs was an amazing machine. I had the pleasure of being aquainted with some of the grunts there.

    I gather a book is forthcoming. I hope I had something to do with encouraging it.

    Is is on Amazon yet? Will a Kindle version be available (that is all I am supposed to buy, but I will risk it for this one.