It was a cold crisp afternoon on Halloween Day, 2020. Six 5th graders took time off from trick-or-treating, along with a straggling parent or two, to accompany me to the top of Crawford Hill in Holmdel, New Jersey. On this highest point in Monmouth County stands the historic Horn Antenna. It was there in 1964 that two radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson, discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation – the smoking gun that finally convinced the scientific community that our universe had a fiery and explosive beginning about 14 billion years ago.
I call this horn shaped giant antenna the Cosmic Bodhi Tree because like the sacred Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, it was with the help of this instrument that humankind was enlightened about the origin of our cosmos. Just as the Buddha received eternal wisdom by tuning his mind to the vibes emanating from the Bodhi tree, so too we humans received sacred knowledge through tuning the horn antenna to the frequency of the light waves that have been radiating out into space ever since the original fireball flared forth with a burst of explosive energy.
Every time I visit the site (I take my students there once a year) I experience a twinge of affinity from just sharing the air with this larger than life instrument. There is a feeling of sanctity and a deep time connection with the cosmos. I see the antenna as a conduit to the source from whence the universe arose. There is also a special respect, bordering on reverence, for the people that first tuned in to the solemn message from the cosmos. With a single act of recognition they gave all of humankind an awareness of how the cosmos arose from a single seed of pure energy. We can now touch the energy that gave rise to us and when I stand close to the antenna I feel I can lose myself in it once again!
Our tour host that day was Greg Wright, a radio astronomer himself who worked for Arno Penzias and who personally knew many of the characters in the amazing tale that he narrated that afternoon to an eager group of cub scouts. The story starts with Einstein when, on a stormy night in January 1917, he solved his own gravity equation for the whole universe and was dismayed to see what it was predicting – an expanding universe! This was too bizarre even for Einstein, who had always believed the cosmos to be constant and eternal. That night he did something he would later regret – he adjusted his elegant equation so as to accommodate a steady universe, one with no beginning and no end.
Five years later (1922) Alexander Friedmann, a Russian physicist, analyzed Einstein’s equation in all its mathematical detail and showed expansion to be a natural consequence of his theory. His analysis was brilliant, but Einstein brushed it aside with two words, “scientifically irrelevant”. Friedmann died 3 years later and it wasn’t until 1927 that Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist and also a Jesuit priest, independently analyzed the equation and realized that expansion implied a hot and dense beginning of the universe – an idea that would later be touted as the Big Bang theory. He also predicted that if the universe is indeed expanding then the “island universes” or galaxies, discovered a few years earlier (in 1924) by Edwin Hubble, should be racing away from the Milky Way at a rate that is in proportion to their distance from us. Einstein, once again, poured cold water on Lemaitre’s idea with the now famous rebuff, “Your math is correct but your physics is abominable”.
What was needed was an experimental observation of cosmic expansion and Hubble once again rose to the occasion. In 1929 he measured the distance and speed of many galaxies and showed that their motion matched with Lemaitre’s prediction. In 1931 Einstein traveled to California to visit Hubble and after satisfying himself with the soundness of Hubble’s measurements he praised his work and admitted that changing his equation was a huge blunder on his part.
As it turned out Einstein was not the only one who found the idea of an evolving universe strange and uncomfortable. Hubble computed the age of the universe from his data but unfortunately the methods available to him to estimate galactic distances were not accurate. The age came out to 1.8 billion years. That was well below the known age of Earth. This gave naysayers a reason to reject the Big Bang idea and look for alternative explanations of an expanding universe.
In 1949, an English physicist by the name of Fred Hoyle crafted a new theory he called the Steady State model – it assumed that new galaxies are constantly being created in space to fill the gaps left by the ones that are racing away, keeping the density of the universe constant. A full-fledged revolt was brewing against the Big Bang theory and it quickly garnered a large followership. As methods improved, the age of the universe was corrected to something more reasonable, but by then the resistance had gathered strength! The physics community would remain split down the middle for another 15 years, until the discovery of the cosmic background radiation by Penzias and Wilson.
The battle between the two hypotheses soon turned ugly. There were plenty of jabs, jokes and petty politics. In fact the term “Big Bang” was coined by Fred Hoyle in a BBC radio interview where he was trying to make fun of the guys that still thought that the universe could have started with a loud bang. Even the Catholic Church jumped into the fray and in 1951 Pope Pius XII declared the Big Bang to be a scientific proof of God’s existence, bringing religion into the conflict. The Soviet Union went even further and banned research on the Big Bang theory on the basis of Marxist-Leninist ideology, dubbing it a new western conspiracy!
A new prediction arising from the Big Bang hypothesis was sorely needed which, if verified would reject one idea and provide clear evidence for the other. Such a prediction was finally made in 1948 by a young Jewish immigrant, Ralph Alpher, who showed that formation of atoms in the early universe would fill all of space with radiation at a distinct wavelength. If detected these microwaves would provide the decisive evidence everyone was looking for. And yet, for reasons that are complex and debated to this day, the scientific community ignored this amazing prediction and took no action to find the smoking gun.
A concerted effort to find the evidence could have settled the case within a few years and solved the long-standing debate. Instead it wasn’t until the early 60s that a lone physicist, Bob Dicke, stumbled upon Alpher’s prediction and decided to look for the waves. His first attempt at MIT failed because his antenna was not sensitive enough. His second attempt at Princeton was scooped by the purely accidental discovery of the radiation made by Penzias & Wilson in 1964.
AT&T Bell Laboratories, where I myself worked for 30 years, had just hired two radio astronomers to help make sure that unknown sources of radio waves from outer space were not creating unwanted noise in their newly developed Horn Antenna. The antenna was to revolutionize trans-Atlantic telecommunication. The very first attempt by the astronomers to find sources of noise revealed a strange hiss that wouldn’t go away no matter what they tried, including getting rid of a couple of pigeons that had nested inside the antenna. Penzias kept telling his colleagues about this stubborn noise hoping to learn what it could be. One of them suggested he talk to Bob Dicke at Princeton. Dicke immediately knew what the two men had lucked upon and turned to his team after the call with the now famous quip, “Guys we have been scooped”. In 1978 Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for their history-making discovery. To the dismay of many, Alpher and Dicke were left out.
This was the story (with some embellishments from me) that held the rapt attention of the cub scouts on that cold Halloween afternoon. From their eager questions to Greg I could tell how enthralled they were with the narrative. This story shows that science does not always work according to scientific method. There is a human side to it. Scientists too can have deep-seated prejudices. They can be cowed down by authority. Science also has its conservative establishment that resists change. And pioneers often carry arrows in their backs. But there is a deep-seated ethic in science that eventually overcomes these hindrances. Science has and will continue to reveal the truth about our reality even if the road is not always a straight one.
Einstein and Hubble were long gone when the Cosmic Microwave Background was detected and the Big Bang theory was finally accepted as our true origin by mainstream science. Lemaitre was in ill health at the time and died a year later. Ralph Alpher was never properly acknowledged for his huge contribution and remained bitter to the end. Fred Hoyle refused to accept the Big Bang theory even until his death in 2001! And the Have-a-Heart device used to trap the pigeons that nested in the antenna can be viewed at the Smithsonian Museum.