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

Lately, he's been driving out to Petaluma to spend time with the people at Fibex Systems, a 70-employee startup where he sits on the board of directors at the behest of New Enterprise Associates. "What the future of networking is going to be comes in part from the association I have with companies like Fibex," Penzias says. "I have a new view of the world."

Apparently, this view mostly has to do with the future of communications transmission and switching systems. Fibex is a single-story cubicle hutch in a single-story office park near a gas station in Petaluma. Petaluma chamber of commerce types have given this area the name "Telecom Valley."

As is the case with most such firms, Fibex's founders are electrical engineers who graduated from top schools, then worked at several technology companies before deciding to strike out on their own with the help of venture capital. Fibex makes a digital loop carrier -- a phone switch -- that is a bit smaller, and does a few more things, than the previous generation of digital loop carriers, explains Ken Buckland, one of Fibex's founding engineers.

Buckland and the company's CEO, Richard Hejmanowski, like having Arno Penzias on their board of directors because he adds star power to their small startup. They know he's the man who discovered the cosmic background radiation that essentially confirmed the Big Bang. They know he used to head the world's greatest industrial lab. And they know that he's now frequently invited to speak at large technology conferences. Hejmanowski has photocopied slide transparencies that Penzias prepared for a talk he gave at Supercom, titled "Beyond Internet Protocol."

"He has such a broad exposure and understanding of the overall communications market -- primarily voice, but also inclusive of data -- that he sees paradigm shifts coming long before they happen," Hejmanowski explains.

But when pressed, they acknowledge that Penzias hasn't spoken to them much about his time at Bell Labs, when he was able to make discoveries that helped humankind understand the nature of existence. He hasn't described to the people at Fibex how he was made Bell Labs' director of research, with the mandate to preserve AT&T's scientific crown jewel -- and then went on to tear down the Bell Telephone Laboratories' hallowed tradition of pure science.

But he left them a hint.
Pinned to a cubicle wall across the hall from Fibex's engineering room is a red T-shirt, one of several that Arno Penzias gave to Fibex executives to celebrate a recent infusion of capital. Across the front of the shirt is a silk-screen of dozens of "3K" symbols scattered in a field. That 3K symbol is the simplest representation of the 3-degrees-above-zero-Kelvin background radiation Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected 33 years ago, when they confirmed the theory of the Big Bang. Amid the 3K symbols is a poem:

This is the way the world began
Not with a whimper but with a bang.

On a sheet of watermarked paper, tacked on the cubicle next to the T-shirt, Arno Penzias explains that this poem -- a celebration of the excitement that accompanied Bell Labs' age of discovery -- is derived from "The Hollow Men," written by a fellow Nobel Prize winner, T.S. Eliot.

While not as optimistic, Eliot's poem may be the more eloquent. It was written to express the barrenness of modern life. But it also describes a nation that has left the wonder of pure scientific curiosity for more practical concerns.

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.

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