Back to New Jersey, where the universe began

A few miles away, Robert Dick, a physicist at Princeton, and his students are beginning to investigate the conditions under which the universe might have begun, if it did indeed have a beginning. They concluded that such a big bang must have been hot enough to sustain thermonuclear reactions, at millions of degrees, to synthesize heavier elements from primordial hydrogen.

That energy must still be there, they realized. But as the universe expanded, the primordial fireball would have cooled to a few kelvins above absolute zero—which, they calculated, would have put cosmic radiation in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. (The team either didn’t know or forgot that the same calculation had been done 20 years earlier by physicist George Gamow and his collaborators at George Washington University.)

To try to detect these microwaves, Dr. Dickey hired two graduate students – David Wilkinson, a talented instrumentalist, and James Peebles, a theorist. As the group was meeting to decide on a plan of action, the phone rang. It was Dr. Penzias. When Dr. Dicke stopped, he turned to his team. “Guys, we just got scooped,” he said.

The two teams met and wrote a pair of papers, which were republished in the Astrophysical Journal. The Bell Labs team described the radio noise, and the Princeton team proposed that it could be leftover heat from the Big Bang — “probably each side thinking, well, we did it right but maybe the other one didn’t,” Dr. Wilson said.

“Both Arno and I wanted to leave open the idea that there might be some other source for this noise,” he added. “But, of course, it didn’t work.”

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