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Who Were Penzias and Wilson?

Arno Penzias (1933- ) and Robert Wilson (1936- )

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson standing on their microwave antenna

Arno Penzias was born in Munich, Germany. In 1939 his family was rounded up for deportation to Poland, but they managed to get themselves returned to Germany and soon made their way to the United States. Penzias studied physics at the City College of New York and Columbia University, where he built a microwave amplifier for radio astronomy research. In 1961 he joined Bell Labs and set to work on microwave satellite communications. When the project was closed, he and Wilson decided to use their antenna to search for radiation from molecules in clouds of gas between the stars. First, though, they tested the antenna at a wavelength where they expected no radiation. But they found "noise," which persisted no matter how indefatigably they tracked down instrumental problems. Robert Dicke at Princeton identified this radiation as something he had already been thinking abouta relic of the creation of the universe.

The serendipitous discovery inspired Penzias to become expert in astronomy. The discovery "made me think of a farmer in Egypt who finds one of those famous tombs," he recalled. "...the first person to make a discovery like that should be an archaeologist, not just a person. So I felt that I needed my astronomer’s license, and for the next few years I proceeded to get it." He and Wilson built a new microwave receiver that made further discoveries, detecting dozens of types of molecules in the interstellar gas. Like many scientists, Penzias was called on to give more and more time to administration. He rose to become Vice President and Chief Scientist of Bell Labs before his retirement in 1998.

Robert Woodrow Wilson grew up in Houston, Texas, where his father was an engineer in the oil fields. "Having picked up a keen interest in electronics from my father," he recalled, "I used to fix radios and later television sets for fun and spending money." After studying physics at Rice University he went to the California Institute of Technology for graduate work, and was attracted to the new radio astronomy group. On his graduation in 1963, Bell Labs recruited Wilson specifically for his knowledge of radio astronomy. When Wilson and Penzias stumbled upon the cosmic microwave background radiation, they were surprised that they had not only made a cosmological discovery, but one important enough to win a Nobel Prize (they each got a quarter of the 1978 prize, with the other half going to Pyotr Kapitza for unrelated work on low-temperature physics). Like Penzias, Wilson increasingly went into administration, and eventually became head of Bell Labs’ Radio Physics Research Department. In 1994 he moved to a senior position at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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