Bell Labs Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Big Bang Discovery

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2014-05-20 Print this article Print
Bell Labs Big Bang theory

In addition, as part of the Big Bang Celebration, Bell Labs has kicked off the new Bell Labs Prize, a competition open to researchers worldwide who have ideas for what Weldon calls "game-changing" work in information and communications technologies and related software systems and applications. The winners of the competition not only will get money—$100,000 for the first-place grand prize, $50,000 for second place and $25,000 for third—but also the chance to work with Bell Labs researchers on their projects.

As the same time, the Bell Labs Prize will give Alcatel-Lucent a way to find new talent that it can bring to Bell Labs, Weldon said. The deadline for entering the contest is July 15—people can register at the Bell Labs Prize Website.

In addition, Bell Labs is expanding its reach globally, opening another site outside Tel Aviv in Israel this summer.

The goal is to bring Bell Labs back to where it was at the time when Penzias and Wilson were working with the massive (20-foot) Holmdel Horn Antenna, hoping to measure the faint radio waves rebounding off Echo balloon satellites. The two men had backgrounds in physics, so while they were working on communications technologies, they also were able to use their physics experience when they heard a hiss that they couldn't identify.

That hiss emerged after Penzias and Wilson had removed all the interference—from radio and radar broadcasting to the heat in the receiver (by cooling it with liquid helium to -269 degrees Celsius) to the pigeons nesting in the antenna itself.

After doing all that, they still heard an unknown buzzing noise coming from all parts of the sky and at all times of the day and night. They couldn't figure out what the noise was.

By 1964, cosmologists had come up with the theory of the Big Bang—in which the universe was created more than 13 billion years ago in a massive explosion—but had yet to find any physical evidence to support it.

At the time the Bell Labs scientists discovered the noise, astrophysicists fewer than 40 miles away at Princeton University were working to detect residual radiation they believed would have been left over from the Big Bang. Essentially by chance, the Bell Labs scientists were made aware of what their counterparts at Princeton were working on, the two groups got together and it was determined that what Penzias and Wilson were hearing was the residual radiation the Princeton scientists were looking for.

"When we first heard that inexplicable 'hum,' we didn't understand its significance, and we never dreamed it would be connected to the origins of the universe," Penzias said years later. "It wasn't until we exhausted every possible explanation for the sound's origin that we realized we had stumbled upon something big."


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