The Big Bang's Echo Forty years ago, two astronomers heard noise on a radio telescope that bolstered the Big Bang theory of the universe's origins. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson recall their Nobel Prize-winning discovery.
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The Big Bang's Echo

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The Big Bang's Echo

The Big Bang's Echo

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A clue about the origin of the universe was discovered 40 years ago. In 1965, the world learned that two astronomers had stumbled onto something that seemed to prove creation occurred all at once long ago. On May 21st of that year, a headline on the front page of The New York Times read: Signals Imply a Big Bang Universe.

NORRIS: The discovery was an accident. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were only trying to clear unwanted noise from a radio telescope. They later won a Nobel Prize for their work. Scientists have labeled the discovery the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century. Here's commentator Ralph Schoenstein.


Listen now to the oldest sound you will ever hear.

(Soundbite of windy noise)

SCHOENSTEIN: That's the echo of a baby's cry, the newborn universe announcing its arrival 13 or 14 billion years ago. The heat of the big bang, the greatest heat ever known, created radiation that spread throughout the expanding cosmos. It cooled, and it still lingers. If you are feeling self-important today, you may feel less so hearing this never-ending primal sound.

Let's climb the small hill to where these two men, the New Yorker Penzias and the Texan Wilson, had a backward look more dramatic than that of Lot's wife. We're at the Bell Labs in Crawford Hill in northeastern New Jersey. From up here, you can't see to the end of the universe, just to the end of Asbury Park. There is a turntable with a gray horn antenna. And with it, you can hear a dawn that came up with considerably more thunder than the one on the road to Mandalay.

Robert Wilson, who lives nearby, came back here for the thousandth time to take me to the little shed attached to this horn antenna. Inside, there's something that looks like a tabletop gyroscope.

Mr. ROBERT WILSON (Astronomer): The gears are really stuck now, but this would turn this way and be driven by a clock at the same rate the Earth rotates.

SCHOENSTEIN: It's a computer that cost $25,000 in the early 1960s and keeps the big radio telescope pointing at the stars.

Mr. WILSON: But any PC would have no trouble doing this job. In fact, my PalmPilot would easily do this job.

SCHOENSTEIN: In other words, a teen-ager today could tune to the big bang in a Burger King. This horn antenna, which looks like a giant ear trumpet, was never used for its original purpose, to trace signals bounced off a satellite. So Bell Labs let Penzias and Wilson use it for other things.

In another shed are boxes of fiber-optic cable. Squeezing into a corner, Wilson tries to turn on the system that moved the great antenna on its turntable.

Mr. WILSON: I'm going to try turning it on. You'll hear a loud noise.

(Soundbite of system turning on)

Mr. WILSON: It takes about a minute to warm up.

SCHOENSTEIN: The system is still in good shape and so is Robert Wilson. When he and Arno Penzias first came here, he had just left graduate school. They had some projects for the radio telescope, but first they wanted to make sure it was making contact with the Milky Way and not Jersey City. They needed quiet. Instead they found noise.

Mr. WILSON: We call it noise because it's completely unstructured. It's random signals.

SCHOENSTEIN: It was a strange, maddening hum.

Mr. WILSON: We tried hard to think of where things came from. We believed in physics. It had to come from somewhere.

SCHOENSTEIN: For a year, they checked to see if the military was testing anything. It was not. And then inside the horn of the big antenna, they found the droppings of pigeons.

Mr. WILSON: It just happened that this thing was stored in a way that pigeons could use for their nesting place.

SCHOENSTEIN: But it was cosmology, not ornithology, for these two men, so the pigeons had to go.

Mr. ARNO PENZIAS (Astronomer): We captured the pigeons initially, and then we sent them to Whippany, which is another location some 30 miles away, and the pigeons came right back.

SCHOENSTEIN: Arno Penzias. He now lives in San Francisco, and he remembers those misplaced birds.

Mr. PENZIAS: We then thought of trying to have ways of discouraging the pigeons from staying. We weren't able to do that. We finally--and I'm not happy about this either, but to get rid of them, we finally found the most humane thing was to get a shotgun. We got a shotgun and, at very close range, just killed them instantly. So it's not something I'm happy about, but that seemed like the right thing. It seemed like the only way out of our dilemma.

SCHOENSTEIN: And so the pigeons left with a smaller bang, but the noise remained, coming from every direction. Penzias thought of Sherlock Holmes.

Mr. PENZIAS: When you have excluded all the impossible explanations, the remaining explanation, however improbable, must be the right one.

SCHOENSTEIN: The great search might have ended right there, but Penzias learned that across the great void of New Jersey, at Princeton University, Professor Robert Dicke had been predicting that the residue of the big bang would be low-level background radiation throughout the universe. Penzias called him and learned that Dicke and physicist Dave Wilkinson were about to build a device to hunt for cosmic background radiation. However, Princeton was going only for the silver. The gold was at Crawford Hill.

Mr. WILSON: Dave Wilkinson tells the story that when Arno called, he and the other people were in Dicke's office having a bag lunch. And Dicke picked up the phone when it rang and talked, and they heard words like `antenna temperature' and `atmospheric brightness.' And Dicke put down the phone and said, `Well, boys, we've been scooped.'

SCHOENSTEIN: Remarkably, the Princeton and Crawford Hill teams had done theory and proof within 40 miles of each other, the best New Jersey collaboration since Thomas A. Edison asked himself what a filament in a vacuum tube might do.

Although the teams both published papers, it was Penzias and Wilson who, in 1978, won the Nobel Prize for what has been called the most important scientific find of the 20th century, two non-Ivy League astronomers who had gotten curious and unlocked the secret of how the universe had come to be. They had canceled out the competing theory called steady state that said there was no moment of genesis and will be no apocalyptic end. For Penzias and Wilson, it will be apocalypse sometime.

Because of the anti-evolution movement, some American schools now are also questioning the big bang. But two men who heard a strange noise in northeastern New Jersey four decades ago would say to these schools, `Do your homework.' For NPR News, this is Ralph Schoenstein.

BLOCK: Photos of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson and the horn antenna are at

(Soundbite of music)


NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.

BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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