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

It was this ferment that drew Arno Penzias, a fresh graduate of Columbia University's physics Ph.D. program, to Bell Labs in 1961.

Penzias was born in 1933 in Germany. By the time he was six, Jews who knew his father, a leather broker, had heard about killings at Dachau. To emigrate from Germany to the United States, however, someone in America had to claim you as a relative and guarantee that you would not become a burden to the government. With an affidavit to this effect, one could apply for a visa for the United States; with the visa, one could obtain an exit permit from Germany.

"Affidavit was the first English word I ever learned," Jeremy Bernstein's 1984 book Three Degrees Above Zero quotes Penzias as saying. "I didn't even know then that it was an English word. Everybody was talking about an affidavit." After pleading with strangers for several months, Penzias' father found someone willing to provide the family with an affidavit. Soon after, the German government stopped allowing Jews to leave. Once in America, Penzias' father found odd jobs doing manual labor, because it was imperative that they not beg for assistance from the people who signed their affidavit; doing so would have been a tacit betrayal of the unspoken contract forged when he begged his benefactors to help save his family from the Nazi death camps. Penzias' father spoke poor English, but he was able to become a building superintendent in various apartment buildings in the Bronx, collecting garbage out of dumbwaiters and stoking coal for furnaces.

"I think the cathartic thing in my life was when the Nazis said they didn't want any Jews in the country," says Penzias, reflecting 59 years later as he sits on the couch of his Nob Hill condominium. "I think that was maybe the most important event in my life."

Penzias' choice of a career in science was not the result of the sort of lifelong, irresistible curiosity about the secrets of the universe that some scientists claim. Rather, it was an extension of his family's flight from the Nazis: It was a way of escaping the poverty caused by their forced abandonment of middle-class German life.

"Somebody once asked me, why did I become a scientist, and they expected some other reason. But what I said was, 'I didn't want to be poor.' Now, I didn't want to be rich -- that's very different. Unless you're poor, unless you've been poor, you don't know the difference. A lot of people live without money, but they have college educations and white skin, and anytime they want to go back to Morgan Stanley they can. That's not poor. But, on the other hand, when I came over from Germany, and my mother was a cleaning woman, and we lived in a basement, it was something I didn't want to do anymore. It really hurt. It's a terrible way of living, and to me science was a job. It always was a job. It was a way out. It was a way into the middle class.

"When I came to America, I couldn't speak English and I wasn't well connected. I didn't think of myself as having social skills, so I went into science," Penzias says.

"So I always had the economics in mind. I always felt I owed somebody something. I never felt that the world owed me something. The world didn't owe me a lab and a place to have fun for the rest of my life. I always felt I owed whoever gave me this thing some value back for the value I got. I think it's a personal attitude that had something to do with my upbringing. I don't think there was ever a time I didn't want to become a scientist. It was just the family thing. Coming to America, there was never a question. We talked about it. By fourth grade, or certainly by junior high school, there was never anything else that occurred to me. I knew I had to make a living, and I didn't know about anything else."

He took his practical verve with him to Columbia, where he studied under Nobel Prize physicist Charles Hard Townes, the legendary Bell Labs scientist who invented the maser, a device that magnifies microwaves and can be used as an amplifier or an oscillator. Penzias was not a perfect student. But he was an original thinker, and he was dogged, Townes recalls.

"Arno always had his own personality. He was a vigorous person. He knew what he wanted and what he thought. He was quite innovative. He was not initially an outstanding student in terms of marks -- in terms of grades and so on -- but he was a good student. It was clear he had his own approach to things, and he was a very interesting guy. I enjoyed him as a student. He was witty, and he had a lot of interesting opinions. He had his own way of doping things, which is good from the point of view of originality. The thesis he tackled was to build a special maser amplifier to detect hydrogen in intergalactic space. That was a chancy kind of a thesis in that, some people thought, they had detected hydrogen. It didn't seem highly likely, but it would be very important if it was true, and it was very important to see whether it was true or not," recalls Townes. "He made a good maser amplifier, and he took it down to Washington to the Naval Research laboratory. It was one of the best antennas around. He worked hard to see if he could detect hydrogen, and it turned out to be nothing there that could be detected.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.