About the age of ten, my cousin who had just secured employment in an electronics trading company gave me an invaluable present. She gave me a beautiful compact radio about the size of a fairly large phone today. The front panel was yellow while the back was black. It was wrapped in cellophane inside a simple white box. The box gave no indication of the beautiful object inside. It was such a wonderful present. I nursed that radio like a child and made sure to return it into its swaddling cloth before putting it away. My poor father must have created a budget for batteries. I ran through too many batteries.
The station dial was on the right side of the radio while the volume control was on the left. I particularly loved tuning the radio at night. I could get more stations at night. But I heard a lot of cackles when I tuned to foreign stations. The farther the station, the more cackles I heard. If only someone had told me that what I was listening to, those cackles, was the sound of Genesis.
You get the same result on your TV. But it comes as static. When you tune unavailable channels on your TV set, you see animated grainy black and white static. 1% of that static stuff is actually the remnant of the photons emitted when God said, “Let there be light!” (Photons are particles that transmit light. It’s actually the Greek word for light.) The photons from that light have been converted into microwave radiation over the vast distances it travelled. It is that microwave radiation that cackles on your radio and dances as static on your TV. (Radio waves, microwaves, infrared rays, ultra violet rays, xrays, gamma rays and visible light are all wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum). That grainy stuff on your TV contains strands of the most ancient light in the Universe. You’re seeing the remnant of the light from Genesis.
The technical name for that radiation is “the cosmic microwave background radiation”. It is often expressed as the acronym “CMB”. It was discovered by accident by two young radio astronomers, Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Wilson. And they won the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1978. The story of their discovery is serendipitous to say the least.
After earning his doctorate degree in radio astronomy from Columbia University, Arno Penzias applied to Bell Labs for a research post. And for two years he was the only radio astronomer at Bell Labs. He was joined by Robert Wilson in 1963. Wilson got his doctorate from Caltech. He had developed an interest in cosmology while taking a graduate course in cosmology by Fred Hoyle. If you recall, Hoyle was a disputer of the Big Bang theory. Wilson, his former student would later supply the evidence to prove him wrong. Hoyle came up with the Steady State Theory. Observational evidence disproved it.
Bell Labs had a redundant 6-metre radio antennae. Originally constructed to detect signals from the Echo balloon satellite, it was converted into a radio telescope after the parent company of Bell Labs, AT&T, withdrew from the Echo project for economic reasons. The sheer size of the telescope ensured that it could locate radio signals from the celestial realm with pinpoint accuracy. A radio telescope is essentially a very large aerial. It’s humongous however.
Penzias and Wilson got permission to do some pure research on this radio telescope. They wanted to survey the sky for different radio signal sources. To do that they needed to familiarize themselves with the telescope and ensure that it was picking up a minimal level of “noise” interference. Too much noise and true signals will be obscured. You come across noise as you tune your radio in between stations. It sounds like the grunting gibberish of an alien in fast forward or rewind mode. Noise disturbs clear signals. To ensure minimal noise level they directed the telescope to a part of the sky devoid of radio galaxies. (A radio galaxy is a galaxy that emits powerful radio frequency signals). There should be no radio signals from space in such regions, but to their dismay there was a persistent, annoying level of noise. The noise level wouldn’t have obstructed their research and most radio astronomers would have ignored it but these were very scrupulous and meticulous fellows. They wanted to conduct the most sensitive survey. They thereupon set about trying to locate the source of the noise in order to reduce it, and if feasible get rid of it completely. [The moral from this is that the quest for excellence can lead to greatness.] The noise remained persistent even when they pointed the antenna away into different directions. It was coming from everywhere. They presumed that the problem lay with the telescope and so they set about testing the electrical systems. They tested circuits, cleaned plugs, duct-taped seams and rivets, yet the noise persisted. At some point they thought it was caused by pigeon droppings – “white dielectric material” as they creatively referred to it in one of their papers. They caught the pigeons, caged them and released them 50 kilometres away. They then went on to scrub the telescope clean and sparkly but the noise persisted. (Those pigeons flew back by the way. Penzias and Wilson had to “get rid” of them).
Despite all the noise reduction efforts (which went on for over a year), the noise did not abate. Something, somewhere was emitting the noise from all directions and it was doing so inconsolably. Unknown to them there was a research team at Princeton University who were very much interested in the very noise they were trying to get rid of. Irony of life. The Princeton team, led by Robert Dicke, was placing a bet on an idea which had earlier been suggested by the Russian-born astrophysicist, George Gamow. Gamow had written a paper with Ralph Alpher in 1948 that there will be remnants of the cosmic background radiation from the big bang in space. In other words, there’ll be remnant radiation from Genesis, Gamow postulated. One just had to look closely. He calculated that this cosmic radiation having crossed vast distances would reach the Earth in the form of microwave. Microwaves are low frequency signals on the electromagnetic spectrum. The high frequency signals are gamma rays, xrays and ultra-violet rays. Penzias and Wilson serendipitously placed a call to Robert Dicke, describing their problem, hoping he could shed light on it. It was Dicke who explained to the young men that they had found the remnant from the Big Bang.
So when next you tune your TV, know that 1% of that grainy static is coming from Genesis when God said, Let there be light! When next you tune your radio, the cackle you hear is actually radiation from Genesis when God said, Let there be light! By the way, that telescope is now a national historic landmark in America. It’s called Houndel Horn Antenna.