Back to New Jersey, where the universe began

A few miles away, Robert Dick, a physicist at Princeton University, and his students began investigating the conditions under which the universe might have begun, if it indeed had a beginning. They concluded that any such large explosion would have to be hot enough to sustain thermonuclear reactions, at millions of degrees, in order to synthesize heavy elements from primordial hydrogen.

They realize that this energy must still be there. But as the universe expanded, the primordial fireball had cooled to a few degrees Kelvin above absolute zero, which, they calculated, would have placed cosmic radiation in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. (The group did not know, or had forgotten, that the same calculation had been made twenty years earlier by physicist George Gamow and his collaborators at George Washington University.)

Dr. Dick assigned two graduate students—David Wilkinson, a gifted musician, and James Peebles, a theorist—to try to detect these microwaves. While the group was meeting to decide on a plan of action, the phone rang. It was Dr. Penzias. When Dr. Dick hung up, he turned to his team. “Guys, we were just targeted,” he said.

The two teams met and wrote two papers, which were published sequentially in the journal Physical Review Letters. The Bell Labs group described the radio noise, and the Princeton group suggested it could be leftover heat from the Big Bang — “Maybe each side is thinking, well, what we did is correct but the other may not be correct,” the doctor says. Wilson said.

He added: “I think Arnold and I wanted to leave open the idea that there was another source of this noise.” “But of course it didn’t work out.”

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