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Chasing Robert Wilson

By João Medeiros

Bob Wilson, discoverer of the cosmic microwave background (with Arnos Penzias), Nobel laureate, is one of the big celebs here at the IYA opening. Students chase him like paparazzi. Good to know there is such a thing as science fanclubs.

I managed to scare away the students and get ten minutes with Wilson. I had to thank him for having given me a PhD topic, after all. We spoke about scientific method and the importance of science journalism.

A curious thing about the discovery of the CMB is that Wilson only truly realized the importance of his discovery when he read about it on the NY times. Being a typical postgraduate at the time (he was 29), back in 1965, he woke up at lunchtime the day after his discovery was published, and it was his father, visiting from Texas, that brought the newspaper with the news. “I didn´t really have a clue of the importance of what we had done until then, thanks to that journalist,” he said.

Wilson didn´t actually take cosmology seriously, given all the speculation back then (nothing much changed then). In fact, he was actually more philosophically inclined to believe in the steady state theory rather than a dynamic universe, partly because Hoyle had been his cosmology lecturer.

According to Wilson, his discovery made cosmology the big industry that it is today, something that we would never had imagined would happen in the slightest.

Given the serendipity of Wilson´s discovery, he says that it hadn´t been for him and Penzias, then certainly someone else would have discovered the CMB sooner or later (in fact, at the time of Wilson and Penzia´s discovery, David Wilkinson was building an antenna to specifically detect the cosmic radiation). Wilson believes in Robert Merton´s theory of multiples, that discoveries are the product of individuals, but of the times.

The NY Times episode shows that Wilson thinks science journalism plays a fundamental role to science. He still reads the New York Times and various science magazines, to keep up to date on what is going on in science. He says he much prefers it to scientific papers, which take a lot a time and effort.

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  1. “…He says that it hadn´t been for him and Penzias, then certainly someone else would have discovered the CMB sooner or later”.
    Lovely to hear he said that, it sounds like fame has not affected him adversely. I have to say I would not encourage my students to chase after either Penzias or Wilson as if they were superstars of science. They were clearly excellent experimentalists, but they also got lucky
    (i) their Nobel prize reflects the importance of the discovery, not the level of difficulty of the experiment or the brilliance of the scientists (unlike, say Einstein or de Broglie)
    (ii) I think there is a difference betwwen experimentalists like Zeilinger who spend years searching for an effect, and those who effectively trip over an unexpected result (did Wilson make other important discoveries? I can’t remember).
    The latter point is emphasised by the fact that even when the significance of their result was explained to them by the Dicke group, the boys didn’t really understand it until they read about it in the press..
    Perhaps this sounds a little harsh, but I can’t help feeling that they got all the fame and fortune , while the Gamow group got nothing..did Gamow even get a mention in Paris?

  2. Jimbo

    Agree with Cormac completely. Indeed, neither Penzias nor Wilson were cosmologists or even astronomers, just microwave system engineers, and they had no inkling that the noise nuisance might be anything but a hassle.
    It was not until Dicke’s group at Princeton got wind of their noise problem, that the CMB was suspected to be the culprit. It was serendipity the whole way for P&W, and neither made a significant discovery in cosmology before or after.

  3. To be fair, it was Penzias and Wilson who contacted Dicke, not the other way round (hence the famous ‘Boys, we’ve been scooped’ remark by Dicke). So P&W had carefully eliminated every known source of noise, a formidable experiemntal achievement…
    So I’m not saying P&W didn’t deserve the Nobel, just that they are not superstars of cosmology, as Jimbo points out..


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