It was 50 years ago May 20 that two scientists in the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey, while experimenting with an antenna, discovered the first evidence of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
The discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation eventually brought Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson the Nobel Prize for Physics and gave more credence to Bell Labs as a premiere research institution in the United States.
Officials and researchers at Bell Labs, now a part of networking and communications technology vendor Alcatel-Lucent, marked the anniversary of the discovery May 20 with the Big Bang Celebration. At the same time, Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs since November 2013, is using the milestone as a key part of his larger plan to return the institution to its original dual-prong mission: solve real-world problems while remaining alert to possible scientific discoveries that might come out of their work.
Penzias and Wilson embodied that mission, according to Weldon. The two were working on a sensitive antenna designed to pick up radio waves from balloon satellites when, after making multiple adjustments, they detected a sound they couldn’t place.
“In trying to solve that balloon satellite problem, they heard that hiss,” Weldon told eWEEK. “It was classic Bell Labs.”
Bell Labs can trace its origins to the 1880s and Alexander Graham Bell, who created Volta Labs from money awarded to him by the French government for inventing the telephone. Decades later it evolved into the Bell Telephone Laboratories, co-owned by AT&T and Western Electric Co. Over the years, researchers at Bell Labs developed the transistor and laser, Unix operating system, the C and C++ programming languages and radio astronomy.
They were solving challenges within the communications industry and, along the way, making discoveries that impact the world.
However, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Bell Labs shifted away from the first part of the mission—addressing complex industry issues—and became more of an academic research facility, Weldon said.
“It became more and more and more advanced in the academic community,” Weldon said. “It simply was doing the best science. … Consequently, it was a revered scientific institution, full of brilliant sciences, but it wasn’t solving real-world problems.”
Weldon joined Bell Labs in 1995, and before becoming president, served as Alcatel-Lucent’s chief technology officer. He said he “grew up in Bell Labs,” and has strong opinions about what it is and what it should be, and its important role in Alcatel-Lucent’s turnaround.
“What I’m really doing is returning” Bell Labs to its original mission, Weldon said. “All Bell Labs was looking for was direction, and I think that’s what I’ve brought to it.”
Making significant scientific discoveries is important, but so is solving industrywide, real-world problems, he said. With that in mind, he has begun challenging Bell Labs researchers. Weldon has told them he is looking for solutions of what he calls “10X problems,” the toughest issues facing the communications industry, from scalability to latency and energy efficiency to 4G LTE and 5G.
“I want big challenges that they focus on, not smaller challenges,” he said.
Bell Labs Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Big Bang Discovery
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.”