INTERVIEW WITH ARNO PENZIAS AND ROBERT WILSON
(Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were the co-winners of the 1978 Nobel prize
for physics and the co-discoverers of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.
Penzias is currently the Vice-President of Research for AT&T Bell Laboratories;
Wilson is the astronomer for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory)
For this interview session Fred Heeren, president of the Day Star Network, sought
out the two scientists who finally turned the consensus against all theories
of an eternal universe (steady state, plasma cosmology, etc.) to a belief that
the universe had a ?creation event,? commonly known today as ?the big bang.?
In 1927, George Lema?tre, who first predicted the early dense state, predicted
that his "primeval atom" might still be detected in the form of remnant radiation.
Early big bang theorists George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman wrote that
the heat radiating from the primeval explosion must still exist, since, unlike
the heat from any other heat source, there is nowhere to which this primeval
heat can escape. The heat from an oven escapes into the surrounding air; the
heat from a volcano escapes into the atmosphere; but there is nowhere ?outside?
the universe to which the big bang radiation can escape. Alpher and Herman even
calculated in 1948 that this radiation should now be expected to be present everywhere
in space at a temperature of about 5 degrees Kelvin (above absolute zero, the
lowest possible temperature). They talked to several experimentalists about
looking for this big bang left-over radiation, but could find no takers. In
1965, without looking for it, two physicists at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New
Jersey found it. At first, Bell’s Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were perturbed
because, while trying to refine the world’s most sensitive radio receiving device
(a large horn-shaped antenna cooled down to nearly absolute zero so that it would be
sensitive to extremely low-temperature radiation), they couldn’t eliminate an
unknown source of noise that corresponded to a temperature of about 3 degrees
Kelvin. Other researchers had used the antenna to track the Echo I and Telstar
communication satellites. They had ignored the small level of background hiss
and had simply reset their zeros. But Penzias and Wilson wanted to be sure they
could accurately detect microwave radiation from the Milky Way Galaxy. Moreover,
they were just plain curious. No matter where they pointed the receiver in the
sky, this level of radiation remained constant.
HEEREN: Could you tell me something about what you and Robert Wilson were looking
for in 1965 and what you actually found?
PENZIAS: We were attempting to measure the high latitude radiation of the Milky
Way at about 22 centimeters. In order to make sure our equipment was actually
working, we first wanted to get a zero by measuring at a higher frequency, a
shorter wavelength?7 centimeters?at which we expected no galactic component whatsoever.
And if we got a zero there, then our other measurement would at least be meaningful.
So we were attempting to make sure that we could in fact measure the absence
of radiation from the Milky Way, when we in fact found radiation, which was coming,
evidently, from beyond the Milky Way. And what we found was radiation for which
there is no known source in the universe.
?HEEREN: I understand that Robert Wilson had been a student of Fred Hoyle and
was probably disposed to believing in a steady state theory before 1965.
?PENZIAS: He, like most physicists, would rather attempt to describe the universe
in ways which require no explanation; there’s the economy of physics. And since
science can’t explain anything?it can only describe things?that’s perfectly
sensible. If every time you wanted to describe a new phenomenon and you found
an explanation for it, you’d be in a lot of trouble. Because you’d say the tree
gets green because it wants to. Or it gets green because nature wanted it that
way. Or a fairy comes there every March, or something like that. Each one of those
are explanations. Whereas in fact all you describe, you describe capillary action
which is the way molecules behave based on some deeper description. Now, on
the other hand, if you have a universe which has always been there, you don’t
explain it, right? Somebody asks you, "How come all the secretaries in your
company are women?," you can say, "Well, it’s always been that way." That’s
a way of not having to explain it. So in the same way, theories which don’t requi
re explanation tend to be the ones accepted by science, which is perfectly respectable
and the best way to make science work. And science works in all cases except
those issues where description is inadequate.
?HEEREN: That’s the way you can keep the theories within the realm of science:
by making sure you’re only talking about descriptions.
HEEREN: But then having said all that, then what happened to his view and to
yours to change them?
?PENZIAS: Well, the steady state theory turned out to be so ugly that people
dismissed it. . . . The easiest way to fit the observations with the least number
of parameters was one in which the universe was created out of nothing, in an
instant, and continues to expand. Physicists normally would like a model in which
there are no external parameters. So what we find?the simplest theory?the one
that the astronomers normally espouse, is a creation out of nothing, the appearance
out of nothing of a universe.
HEEREN: Now in some of the books I’ve read it actually talks about you folks
going out there and scraping off some bird droppings, because you thought, "Well,
it must be something that’s hanging in there no matter where we point it in
the sky." Is that true?
?WILSON: We looked at several things relating to the telescope itself. And cleaning
up after the birds was one of them. In fact that did knock a little bit off
our measured temperature. There was some radiation from the bird droppings.
?HEEREN: I understand that you had been a student of Fred Hoyle and were probably
disposed, as so many people were then, to believing in a steady state theory
before 1965. Is that true?
?WILSON: Well, I really didn’t actually take a course from Fred Hoyle. Fred
was around at Caltech. I guess I was a student in the sense that I sat in on
a course in cosmology that he taught. But yes, that connection was there. That
was true, that I philosophically liked the steady state. And clearly I’ve had to give
?HEEREN: What kind of period of time was involved in giving that up?
?WILSON: Oh, this whole thing was spread out a lot, because we had the original
problem, so to speak. And then along came this wacky idea from Princeton. They
were actually thinking about multiple big bangs. Arnold and I were very happy
to have some explanation of what was going on, but neither one of us, I think, bought
the exact cosmology right away. So it was a matter of at least some months and
probably more like a year.
?HEEREN: In general, some people feel that evidence for a beginning for the
universe also provides evidence for some kind of?something outside of nature
to have created nature. It seems that if you compare the steady state with the
big bang, there’s one theory that has the universe that’s here eternally?and
so maybe there’s no need for anything else?then you have the other theory that
says that everyt
hing started at one point, which would then require that something
came out of nothing. And that makes me wonder if this then would be indicative
of a Creator.
?WILSON: Certainly there was something that set it all off. Certainly, if you
are religious, I can’t think of a better theory of the origin of the universe
to match with Genesis. It may be the creation stories are a bit anthropomorphic:
you know, people are created and live and die, and so the creation stories probably
follow the same general pattern.
HEEREN: But that is a very big difference between Genesis and the other creation
stories. I’m probably a better student of history than I am of science. If you
go back into comparative religions, in primitive religions, you find that the
Hebrews alone had a concept of a creation event, whereas all the other religions
seemed to have this amorphous blob that always was, this watery mass that everything
then came out of, including the gods, after that. So there’s a very big difference
?WILSON: There is a big difference there, isn’t there? Well, it [the big bang]
certainly fits with that.
?Since Penzias?s and Wilson?s discovery of the microwave background radiation,
much more has been learned about it to show that it is indeed the remnant or
afterglow from the big bang (proved especially by its characteristic curve fitting
the predicted ?blackbody curve? and the recent finding of the predicted ?ripples?
or ?seeds? for galaxy superclusters found in it). At the end of my talk with
Robert Wilson, I pointed out what I find to be the most fascinating thing about
what he discovered: it fits ancient Hebrew revelation uniquely. Of all the ancient
writings about creation, only the ancient Hebrew account got it right. Human
tradition has always assumed that the universe had no particular beginning (the
sole exception being the Bible and those religions influenced by it). The ancients
didn’t believe that the gods created the universe out of nothing, but that the
gods formed it out of an eternal, watery mush that existed before them. And
from Aristotle to Einstein, the scientific view was that the universe has simply
always been here, thus relieving scientists of the burden of having to deal
with the question of ultimate origins. In the words of Berkeley Lab?s George
Smoot (who discovered the cosmic ?seeds? in the microwave background in 1992)
, "there is no doubt that a parallel exists between the big bang as an event
and the Christian notion of creation from nothing." In the foreword to my book,
Show Me God, he says: ?Until the late 1910?s, humans were as ignorant of cosmic
origins as they had ever been. Those who didn?t take Genesis literally had no
reason to believe there had been a beginning.? Einstein first taught us that
space, time, mass and energy are inextricably linked. The expansion of the universe
is not a matter of galaxies being flung out into a larger void, but of space itself
stretching and taking galaxies along for the ride. This means that if our backward
journey through time ends with the disappearance of matter, then time and space
must disappear too. Logic tells us that causes must precede their effects. So
what should we think about the cause for this universe when there is no time
before the beginning? A cause must be separate from its effect, meaning that
the cause of our universe must be placed squarely outside of it. And this is
the first thing these discoveries in cosmology suggest about the universe’s
greatest mystery, the greatest whodunit of all time: it was an outside job.
Copyright ? 1997 Day Star? You’ll find the whole history of these twentieth
century cosmological discoveries, and the bigger implications for everyday life,
in Day Star’s new book, Show Me God. The Day Star Network is a division of Day
Star Productions, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Wheeling, Illinois.
Its mission is to encourage people to seek answers to life’s big questions–and
to provide the best information possible to aid in the quest. The Day Star Network
is an informal network of interested individuals of all beliefs and educational
backgrounds, organized by Day Star Productions. For membership information,
contact Day Star at www.daystarcom.org or call 1-800-743-7700.?