Explore The Universe

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Penzias and Wilson Pigeon Trap

Searching for Evidence of the Big Bang

Like investigators at a crime scene, astronomers have been combing the Universe for physical evidence to test the big bang theory-the most widely accepted scientific theory for how the Universe evolved. The first evidence that turned up was predicted in advance but discovered by accident. Some scientists thought the big bang should still be visible as a faint glow of radio light filling the sky in all directions. In 1964 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered that light, called the cosmic background radiation.

Pigeon Trap (84k JPEG)

Pigeon Trap Used
by Penzias and Wilson

Penzias and Wilson thought the static their radio antenna was picking up might be due to droppings from pigeons roosting in the antenna horn. They captured the pigeons with this trap and cleaned out the horn, but the static persisted.
Lent by Robert Wilson

  Maybe It's the Pigeons...?

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were puzzled. The two scientists at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, had ruled out everything they could think of that could create the static their satellite communications antenna was picking up. Pigeons had taken to roosting in the radio antenna's large horn. They thought that perhaps heat from pigeon droppings was the cause.

They set out a trap to catch the pigeons, but that didn't resolve the mystery either. No matter where in the sky they pointed their radio antenna, they kept picking up that faint, persistent hiss.

Their determination in 1964 that the entire sky seemed to be dimly glowing with radio light confirmed physicists' predictions and later earned Penzias and Wilson a Nobel Prize. The two scientists had, quite by accident, discovered the fading flash from the big bang.

Other Featured Artifacts in this section of the exhibit:
Hubble Space Telescope Wide-Field/Planetary Camera & CCD
Hubble Space Telescope Backup Mirror
High Resolution Imager (HRI)


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