From Bang to Net

How Arno Penzias, who won the Nobel Prize for confirming the universe started with a Big Bang, turned his back on pure science and became an investment banker for Silicon Valley

Radiation from a heat source as faint as the remnants of the Big Bang would only be detectable somewhere in the microwave region, whose wavelengths range from one millimeter to a meter in length, and are invisible to the naked eye. So the Princeton scientists perched a small antenna atop a university building, and went about searching for the faint cosmic microwave background radiation that would confirm the Big Bang.

One colleague of Penzias and Wilson, aware of the Princeton Big Bang project, coyly suggested that Penzias contact Dicke and Peebles. Just as coy, Dicke, Peebles, and their co-researchers expressed muted interest, and promptly made the trip to Crawford Hill, New Jersey.

"We took them up on the hill, showed them our experiment, and they looked at all the things we had done. They looked at each other and said, 'It looks like they made the measurement,' " Wilson recalls. "Then they took us down to a conference room and explained the cosmology."

The explanation was as simple as it was staggering: Penzias and Wilson had seen the Big Bang, cooled to 2.73 degrees above absolute zero.

The cosmic background radiation discovered by Penzias and Wilson cemented the tenets of modern cosmology, proving for the vast majority of astrophysicists the dynamic nature of our universe. Everything science now asserts about the history and structure of the cosmos is, in one way or another, tied to the observation of Penzias and Wilson. While other technicians had detected the radiation, they had all assigned it to instrumental error. Only Penzias and Wilson had tenaciously struggled to eliminate the buzz, until the only logical explanation for it lay in the very creation of the cosmos.

As if to prove that their serendipitous background radiation discovery was no flash in the pan, in 1970 the pair made a series of observations at the Kitt Peak radio telescope in Arizona, revealing the presence of large amounts of interstellar carbon monoxide gas in the universe. This discovery, made with the help of another Bell Labs researcher, K.B. Jefferts, revolutionized science's understanding of the evolution of stars, the structure of the Milky Way galaxy, and the content and structure of other galaxies and the space between and within them. In doing so, they had founded an entire academic field, now known as millimeter-wave astronomy. In 1973, at Penzias' direction, these three scientists discovered the existence of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) in outer space, providing additional clues to the birth of the universe.

Less than a decade into his career, Arno Penzias had become a titan of basic scientific research. Two decades later, he would come to be seen by many as its scourge.

In 1982, just as AT&T was forced to break up its telephone monopoly, Arno Penzias, the company's newest Nobel Prize winner, was promoted to head Bell Labs. His mission: to preserve the company's crown jewel. But business realities later forced Bell Labs to purge the freewheeling and fanciful pure science that had given the organization its reputation.

Arno Penzias is a man of severe features and gracious manner, a man whose tightly worded conversation betrays a passionate and complex yet practical mind. He did not resign when he discovered he would have to tear down, rather than build on, Bell Labs' scientific reputation. Instead, he took to this new task with a nearly religious zeal. He argued with research directors in hours-long shouting matches over which divisions to abolish and which scientists to move from basic research to product development. Scientists were reassigned. Some were fired. The old ethic of science for science's sake was purged.

"He said, if we had another Nobel Prize, he would be embarrassed about it," recalls Wilson, the former research partner with whom Penzias shared the Nobel Prize in 1978. "He said we should be doing other sorts of work."

While seemingly subtle, the difference between basic and applied scientific research is fundamental. To the basic researcher, what science knows is less interesting than what it does not know. To the technologist, the point is to improve on what is already known. In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the place discovery and invention once occupied in the public imagination has been replaced by an infatuation with technological complexity -- a reverence for faster, smaller, and more complicated devices that do essentially the same things as their predecessors, only better.

Some scientists see in the career of Arno Penzias the metaphor for this troubled time; a defining parable for an entire nation that has become less curious about the world.

"I feel that Bell Labs has produced perhaps the greatest advances in science that were achieved by any labs in the U.S. in the period up to the mid-1980s. And I think Arno did a great deal of damage to the laboratory from that perspective," says former Bell Labs researcher David Moncton, now director of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. "The hatred he engendered from the staff is incomparable."

Although Bell formed its "Experimental Shop" in 1883 to test copper wires and decide which patents were worth buying, it was a telephone call between New York and San Francisco that convinced Bell System executives that it behooved them to fund a world-class scientific lab.

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