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Big Bang Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation

Page 226 in your personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.


In the 1950's there were two competing theories regarding the origin of the universe. One was the Steady State Theory put forth by Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi. Its thesis was that the universe was homogenous in both space and time, was always like that, and would remain so forever. The other and more controversial theory was based on Edwin Hubble's 1929 discovery that all galaxies are moving away from one another at great speeds, and that therefore the space between them is continually expanding. George Gamow and a few physicists held this "expansion of the universe" point of few. They claimed that if the universe were expanding, it followed that the separation between galaxies must therefore have been smaller in the past.

Following this argument to its ultimate conclusion, if follows that the universe must have been much smaller in the past, and at one time entirely located at a single point. Such an infinitely hot and dense point would necessarily have exploded in a cataclysmic creation event, and, if so, everything we now see in the universe must have come from this incredibly hot and dense point that primordially exploded in what is now called the "Big Bang." 

In 1960 Bell Labs built a huge radio antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey, as part of an early attempt to boost radio signals. The antenna collected and amplified very weak radio signals that had already been bounced off large metallic balloons high in the atmosphere. Although this enabled the Holmdel antenna to transmit the signals for great distances, the entire Echo system soon became obsolete when the Telstar satellite with built-in transponders was launched.

Enter two Bell Labs physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who had been doing research on galactic and intergalactic radio signals using masers (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). They had both had their eye(s) on the Holmdel antenna, and with the launch of Telstar in 1962 it was now freed up for pure research.

When the two physicists began to use it use as a radio telescope, they discovered an annoying background noise, like radio static, in the microwave range they were utilizing. It was first assumed that the telescope itself was generating this noise, which wasn't significant for the commercial purposes to which the antenna had previously been put, but which did interfere with Wilson's and Penzias' work. Because the noise was relatively isotropic -- that is, it registered at the same frequency and the same strength from every direction in the sky -- they first checked out everything in the antenna itself, and finally ruled that out as the source of the noise. Then they ruled out "local" sources like New York City (they pointed the antenna at New York City, no change), radio signals on Earth, even radio signals from the galaxy or extraterrestrial sources. The physicists even kicked out pigeons that had been roosting in the big antenna and swept out their droppings, to no avail. And the noise remained the same throughout the four seasons, so that ruled out something in the solar system (or a 1962 above-ground nuclear test the fallout from which would have decreased over a year) as being the source.

At about this same time Robert Dicke at nearby Princeton was exploring big bang theories. He had hypothesized that if in fact there had been a big bang, the residue from that explosion would by now, some 13.7 billion years later, be reduced in temperature to a low-level uniform background microwave radiation throughout the entire universe. The truly amazing thing was that his computations predicted that the temperature left over from the big bang would today be about 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, exactly what the two Bell Labs physicists had been seeing everywhere as "noise" in their Holmdel radio telescope! Dicke had in fact been searching for evidence of his theory when the two physicists got in touch with him, at which point he told his fellow-scientists, "We've been scooped." What's interesting is that many researchers had already stumbled on this phenomenon, but had either discounted it or not understood its significance. This was partly because in the 1950s the study of the early universe was not regarded as what a respectable scientist would devote his time to.

All that has changed since their 1965 discovery. The "noise" in the Holmdel radio telescope is now known as the cosmic background radiation, or, more poetically, "the sound of the beginning of the universe." Since the mid-1970s the big-bang theory has become the standard cosmological model. In 1978 Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias received the Nobel Prize for physics. Many consider their discovery, with Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, as one of the three great intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. Ivan Kaminow, one of Penzias' early colleagues at Holmdel, remarked that Penzias was "an unusually lucky guy." He continued, "Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson were trying to find the source of excess noise in their antenna, where pigeons were roosting. They spent hours searching for and removing the pigeon dung. Still the noise remained, and was later identified with the Big Bang. Thus, they looked for dung but found gold, which is just opposite of the experience of most of us."

This Big Bang Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.

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Carl Woebcke: The Big Bang: Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, 1991-2017. All rights reserved.