Monday, October 23, 2006

The Big Bang

"[T]he notion of the Big Bang is quite a recent one. The idea had been kicking around since the 1920s, when George Lemaitre, a Belgian priest-scholar, first tentatively proposed it, but it didn't become an active notion in cosmology until the mid-1960s when two young radio astronomers made an extraordinary and inadvertent discovery. ...

"Their names were Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In 1965, they were trying to make use of a large communication antenna owned by Bell Laboratories at Holmdel, New Jersey, but they were troubled by a persistent background noise--a steady, steamy hiss that made any experimental work impossible. The noise was unrelenting and unfocused. It came from every point in the sky, day and night, through every season. For a year, the young astronomers did everything they could think of to track down and eliminate the noise. They tested every electrical system. They rebuilt instruments, checked circuits, wiggled wires, dusted plugs. They climbed into the dish and placed duct tape over every seam and rivet. They climbed back into the dish with brooms and scrubbing brushes and carefully swept it clean of what they referred to in a later paper as 'white dielectrical material,' or what is known more commonly as bird shit. Nothing they tried worked.

"Unknown to them, just thirty miles away at Princeton University, a team of scientists led by Robert Dicke was working on how to find the very thing they were trying so diligently to get rid of. The Princeton researchers were pursuing an idea that had been suggested in the 1940s by the Russian-born astrophysicist George Gamow that if you looked deep enough in space you should find some cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang ..."

"Still unaware of what caused the noise, Wilson and Penzias phoned Dicke at Princeton and described their problem to him in the hope that he might suggest a solution. Dicke realized at once what the two young men had found. 'Well, boys, we've just been scooped,' he told his colleagues as he hung up the phone. ...

"Although Penzias and Wilson had not been looking for cosmic background radiation ... they received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics. The Princeton researchers got only sympathy. According to Dennis Overbye in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, neither Penzias nor Wilson altogether understood the significance of what they had found until they read about it in the New York Times."

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway, 2003, pp. 11-12.


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