Monday, January 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Robert Wilson

Today is the 75th birthday of Robert Wilson, an accidental Nobel laureate in physics. In 1964, Wilson and his partner Arno Allen Penzias were working at Bell labs in New Jersey developing a new ultra-sensitive antenna that could measure small amounts of radio waves that would be bounced off of satellites. As anyone with a hearing aid will tell you, the problem with listening devices is that they hear everything around you, not just what you are trying to listen to. So, Penzias and Wilson spent a lot of time figuring out the possible sources of interference and filtering them out.

But then there was one source they could not figure out. It was a low hum that came from everywhere. It was the same frequency no matter where in the sky they pointed the antenna. They had cooled the instrument down to eliminate internal effects of heat, so that couldn't be it. But the noise was still there, yet seemed to have no definite source. They checked everything they could think of, but none of it accounted for the noise. Then they thought they found it. Pigeons had set up a nest in the antenna. They shoo-ed them out and cleaned up the droppings and figured that was that.

But it was still there. They had no sense of what it could be until a friend, hearing of their issues, told them about a paper he had read from a group headed by Robert Dicke, right down the road at Princeton, who argued that if the big bang theory was true -- something up in the air at the time -- then there ought to be a cosmic background radiation, in a sense, echoes of the bang resonating through all of space. Once Dicke and his team had realized that there was this strange effect which would seemingly show the likelihood of the big bang theory one way or the other, they set out to build an instrument sensitive enough to look for it.

When Penzias and Wilson read the paper, they finally figured out what their noise was. And for it they -- but not Dicke -- won the Nobel Prize for physics for providing the first clear evidence of the big bang theory, even though they were never looking for it.