Big Bang's Ripples: Two Scientists Recall Their Big Discovery Fifty years ago today, two astronomers in New Jersey accidentally discovered the Big Bang's afterglow. The roaring space static their hilltop antenna detected came from the birth of the universe.
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Big Bang's Ripples: Two Scientists Recall Their Big Discovery

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Big Bang's Ripples: Two Scientists Recall Their Big Discovery

Big Bang's Ripples: Two Scientists Recall Their Big Discovery

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. "The Big Bang Theory" is the title of the most popular sitcom on TV right now. The idea that the universe had a fiery start is right there in the theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIEGEL: In real life, the Big Bang theory is a cornerstone of modern science. And that's only because of a discovery made 50 years ago today. That's when two astronomers first heard a faint signal echoing through the cosmos. It was the Big Bang's afterglow. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel spoke to duo and has this tale of a very lucky discovery.

JEFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The first scientist is a guy Arno Penzias.

ARNO PENZIAS: I was born on April 26th, 1933 in Bavaria, which is also the birthdate of the Geheime Staatspolizei.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: What's that? I don't even know what that is.

PENZIAS: Oh, sure you do - Gestapo.

BRUMFIEL: Penzias is Jewish. He fled Nazi Germany as a child and ended studying physics at City College of New York. His collaborator was Bob Wilson. Wilson's Texan, though he's lost his accent, grew up in Houston as the son of a chemical engineer, didn't do too well in high school - almost didn't get into college at all.

BOB WILSON: I barely got into Rice, perhaps because my father was an alum.

BRUMFIEL: They both found their way into astronomy and met at a conference in 1962.

WILSON: I was rather shy at the time.

BRUMFIEL: Penzias, on the other hand, was from the Bronx.

PENZIAS: Endlessly talkative.

BRUMFIEL: Penzias was working at Bell Telephone Laboratories. He invited Wilson to come work with him, and Wilson agreed.

WILSON: Seemed like it might be a good collaboration. I think in the end it was an excellent collaboration.

PENZIAS: Oh yeah. We used to finish each other's sentences.

BRUMFIEL: Well, Penzias did most of the finishing. It may seem odd that two astronomers would work at a telephone lab. But Bell Labs had something special: a state-of-the-art antenna for detecting microwaves. Yes, as in microwave ovens. But microwaves are actually a form of light. And in the 1960s, Bell Labs was trying use them to transmit long-distance phone calls. It used this super-antenna to make the first satellite phone call, from Holmdel, New Jersey out to Goldstone, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hello, Goldstone, this is Holmdel calling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Holmdel, this is Goldstone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, wonderful. Well, it looks like all the hard work was really worth it.

BRUMFIEL: And for Penzias and Wilson, it meant work could begin, because now that the antenna wasn't pointed at a satellite, they could use it to study microwaves coming from outer space. They wanted to study our galaxy. But when they pointed it at the edge of the Milky Way...

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC)

BRUMFIEL: That's the original recording from May 20th, 1964 - roaring static.

WILSON: The first though was we've got a problem here and we've got to find out what's wrong.

PENZIAS: So, I did all sorts of things to try to find what this other source of noise could be.

BRUMFIEL: There was a nearby military base. Maybe its powerful radar was causing interference. So, Penzias called them up.

PENZIAS: Sergeant Jones speaking, sir. And I would say good afternoon, sergeant. Is the radar on? He said no. Who is this? And I hung up.

BRUMFIEL: Another possibility? Birds.

WILSON: There were a pair of pigeons living in the antenna.

BRUMFIEL: Wilson and Penzias got on their lab coats, climbed inside their giant microwave contraption and wiped out the pigeon poop. The birds kept roosting in there, so Penzias made a hard decision.

PENZIAS: The only humane way of doing it was to buy a box of shotgun shells. So, that's what finally happened to the pigeons.

BRUMFIEL: But when they turned on the de-pigeoned antenna...

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC)

BRUMFIEL: ...the static was back. Penzias and Wilson spent months crossing off possible sources of interference.

PENZIAS: It wasn't the radar, it wasn't the cars on the Garden State Parkway. We went through absolutely everything.

BRUMFIEL: Then one day, another researcher suggested the source might not be on earth. It might not even be in the galaxy. Calculations showed years before that if the Big Bang had really happened, its afterglow would still be visible. And it would show up today as microwaves coming from all directions. The static they were getting in New Jersey came from all directions. It was everywhere. Had they just found the remains of the Big Bang?

WILSON: We were a little skeptical but very pleased to have any kind of explanation for what we'd been seeing.

BRUMFIEL: Others were a little more excited.

CHARLES BENNETT: Well, Penzias and Wilson rocked my world.

BRUMFIEL: That's Charles Bennett an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University. He was in high school when he heard about their discovery. And he's one of hundreds of scientists today who have devoted their careers to studying those microwaves. They've built satellites and set up telescopes in the remote reaches of Antarctica. It turns out that when you look closely at the microwave glow, you discover tiny variations - ripples left over from the violent swirling of the early universe. The ripples are filled with details of how it all began.

BENNETT: Told us a tremendous amount about the universe, including its age - 13.8 billion years - but also a census of what it's made of, the shape of the universe and many other aspects of the universe that we just didn't know before.

BRUMFIEL: The microwaves also showed researchers hints of what they don't know. There's some kind of unknown force out there.

BENNETT: Dark energy, which sounds sort of evil, but dark energy is just a name for something that's causing the universe's expansion to actually accelerate, to go faster and faster.

BRUMFIEL: Eventually, it may push everything, even atoms, apart. And for Robert Wilson, this is the dark side of his discovery 50 years ago. If the universe had a beginning, a Big Bang, it seems inevitable that it will also have an end.

WILSON: I don't like the idea that whatever we do as humanity will ultimately be lost in some end of the universe. Yes, I guess I wish that the universe might live forever.

BRUMFIEL: But he considers himself lucky to have made this discovery. He and Penzias won the Nobel Prize. They went on to have full careers and happy lives. And the end of the universe is still a very long way away. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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