Three Degrees above Zero
In June 1982 I was spending my usual summer at the Aspen Center for Physics when I was approached by Philip Anderson. He was a very persuasive person who had won the Nobel Prize five years earlier. I didn’t really know him but he presented me with almost a command. It looked as if AT&T was going to be broken up and Anderson was worried about what might happen to Bell Laboratories, where he worked. He wanted me to write something about it, preferably for the New Yorker. My problem was that I knew almost nothing about Bell Labs. I knew that the transistor had been discovered there as had the radiation left over from the Big Bang. I also knew that it was an enormous laboratory employing some 25,000 people. Under these circumstances how could I possibly write something that made any sense? But Anderson is as I said a very persuasive person so I agreed to try something.
The first step was to visit Bell Labs’ headquarters in Murrray Hill, New Jersey. As it happened a neighbour of mine in New York worked at the lab and said I could join the regular car pool from the city. So I appeared in Anderson’s office. On the way there I was struck by how gigantic the lab was. If you were going to write about it where would you start? The only possible way would be to present a series of profiles of some of the scientists who worked there. I interviewed Suzanne Nagel who worked in glass fibres, and Béla Julesz who was studying visual perception, and the mathematician Ronald Graham who was also a juggler and acrobat. He sometimes came down to lunch by walking on his hands on the bannisters. I played a game of chess with Belle, at the time the world champion chess machine.
Arno Penzias, the lab’s research director, was born in Germany in 1933. He and his brother were among the Jewish children rescued on the Kindertransport in 1939. Miraculously his parents got out too and using a boat ticket his father had bought they emigrated from England to America. Penzias went to Brooklyn Technical High School and City College. After a stint in the army he did his graduate work at Columbia and got an offer to work at the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, also in New Jersey. They specialised in work connected with communications satellites. Penzias developed antennae for a radio telescope. He was soon joined by Robert Wilson, who had got his degree at Caltech. They were given permission to use a radio telescope but it didn’t work. It had some static they could not get rid of. They tried everything. The year was 1965.
Penzias had a telephone conversation with a radio astronomer at MIT, Bernard Burke. Penzias was complaining about the noise and Burke told him that he had just spoken on the phone with yet another radio astronomer, Ken Turner from the Carnegie Institution, who had just heard a talk given by a young postdoc from Princeton, James Peebles. Peebles had argued that, as the radiation from the Big Bang had expanded and cooled in the universe, it would now be at a temperature lower than ten degrees above absolute zero. (The temperature is now known to be 2.72548 ± 0.00057 K.) This would put it in the microwave regime and it would show up as the ‘noise’ Penzias and Wilson had found. They had accidentally made one of the most important discoveries in the history of science, for which they won the Nobel Prize in 1978.
Peebles was part of a group at Princeton headed by his thesis adviser, Robert Dicke, that was setting up to look for the radiation that Penzias and Wilson had discovered. Peebles is one of the recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize. ‘His theoretical framework,’ the committee says, ‘developed since the mid-1960s, is the basis of our contemporary ideas about the universe.’