This article/write up was initially published in my old blog which can be found here.
This is one of earliest article and has hardly any original content and hence my apologies are due.
The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB), conclusive proof of the Big Bang, was termed by some scientist as “The Face of God”, perhaps taking a cue from Einstein’s famous “mind of God” phrase. Some scientists actually cried after seeing this “beautiful” image ( that comes from Michio Kaku).
During the first few days of the Universe, the Universe was in full thermal equilibrium, with photons being continually emitted and absorbed, giving the radiation a blackbody spectrum. As the Universe expanded, it cooled to a temperature at which photons could no longer be created or destroyed. The temperature was still high enough for electrons and nuclei to remain unbound, however, and photons were constantly “reflected” from these free electrons through a process called Thomson scattering. Because of this repeated scattering, the early Universe was opaque to light.
When the temperature fell to a few thousand Kelvin, electrons and nuclei began to combine to form atoms, a process known as recombination. Since photons scatter infrequently from neutral atoms, radiation decoupled from matter when nearly all the electrons had recombined, at the epoch of last scattering, 379,000 years after the Big Bang. These photons make up the CMB that is observed today, and the observed pattern of fluctuations in the CMB is a direct picture of the Universe at this early epoch.
But they story about it’s discovery is rather entertaining and also leaves many people disillusioned.
Here is an excerpt from A Short history of Nearly Everything (an extremely delightful book!)
There is of course a great deal we don’t know, and much of what we think we know we haven’t known, or thought we’ve known, for long. Even the notion of the Big Bang is quite a recent one. The idea had been kicking around since the 1920s, when Georges Lemaître, a
Belgian priest-scholar, first tentatively proposed it, but it didn’t really become an active notion in cosmology until the mid-1960s when two young radio astronomers made an extraordinary and inadvertent discovery.
Their names were Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In 1965, they were trying to make use of a large communications antenna owned by Bell Laboratories at Holmdel, New Jersey, but they were troubled by a persistent background noise—a steady, steamy hiss that made any
experimental work impossible. The noise was unrelenting and unfocused. It came from every point in the sky, day and night, through every season. For a year the young astronomers did
everything they could think of to track down and eliminate the noise. They tested every electrical system. They rebuilt instruments, checked circuits, wiggled wires, dusted plugs.
They climbed into the dish and placed duct tape over every seam and rivet. They climbed back into the dish with brooms and scrubbing brushes and carefully swept it clean of what they referred to in a later paper as “white dielectric material,” or what is known more
commonly as bird shit. Nothing they tried worked.
Unknown to them, just thirty miles away at Princeton University, a team of scientists led by Robert Dicke was working on how to find the very thing they were trying so diligently to get rid of. The Princeton researchers were pursuing an idea that had been suggested in the 1940s by the Russian-born astrophysicist George Gamow that if you looked deep enough into space you should find some cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Gamow
calculated that by the time it crossed the vastness of the cosmos, the radiation would reach Earth in the form of microwaves In a more recent paper he had even suggested an instrument that might do the job: the Bell antenna at Holmdel. Unfortunately, neither Penzias and
Wilson, nor any of the Princeton team, had read Gamow’s paper.
The noise that Penzias and Wilson were hearing was, of course, the noise that Gamow had postulated. They had found the edge of the universe, or at least the visible part of it, 90 billion trillion miles away. They were “seeing” the first photons—the most ancient light in the
universe—though time and distance had converted them to microwaves, just as Gamow had predicted.
Still unaware of what caused the noise, Wilson and Penzias phoned Dicke at Princeton and described their problem to him in the hope that he might suggest a solution. Dicke realized at once what the two young men had found. “Well, boys, we’ve just been scooped,” he told his colleagues as he hung up the phone.
Soon afterward the Astrophysical Journal published two articles: one by Penzias and Wilson describing their experience with the hiss, the other by Dicke’s team explaining its nature.
Although Penzias and Wilson had not been looking for cosmic background radiation, didn’t know what it was when they had found it, and hadn’t described or interpreted its character in any paper, they received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics.
The Princeton researchers got only sympathy. According to Dennis Overbye in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos , neither Penzias nor Wilson altogether understood the significance of what they had found
until they read about it in the New York Times .
This is most probably one of my most favorite anecdotes of all time and it really makes me wonder about the relative value that one should attach to fame, recognition and satisfaction. I feel bad for Prof Dickie.
You can read a more hilarious and cynical attitude about this at Cracked.com ( see #4. Two Guys Win the Nobel Prize in Physics for an Accident)
The Wikipedia article can be found here