Arno A., died Monday in San Francisco. Penzias, whose astronomical investigations yielded indisputable evidence of the existence of an evolving, dynamic universe with a clear point of origin, confirming what became known as the Big Bang Theory. He was 90 years old.
His son, David, said his death in a nursing home was due to complications from Alzheimer's disease.
Dr. Penzias (pronounced PEN-zee-as) participated in the 1978 half term Nobel Prize in Physics with Robert Woodrow Wilson For their discovery in 1964 of the cosmic microwave background radiation, a remnant of an explosion that gave birth to the universe about 14 billion years ago. This explosion, known as the Big Bang, is now the widely accepted explanation for the origin and evolution of the universe. (A third physicist, Pyotr Kapitsa from Russia, received the other half of the award, for his progress in developing liquid helium.)
Until Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson published their observations, the Big Bang theory competed with steady-state theory, which envisioned a more stable, timeless expanse growing in infinite space, with new matter forming to fill the gaps.
Finally, the discovery of Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson settled the controversy. However, this was the serendipitous result of a completely different investigation.
In 1961, Dr. Penzias joined AT&T's Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, with the goal of using a radio antenna, which was being developed for satellite communications, as a radio telescope to make cosmological measurements.
“The first thing I thought of was to study the galaxy in a way that no one else had been able to do,” he said in one of the conversations. 2004 interview With the Nobel Foundation.
In 1964, while preparing an antenna to measure the properties of the Milky Way, Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson, another young radio astronomer who was new to Bell Labs, encountered a persistent, unexplained hissing of radio waves that seemed to come from being detected everywhere in sky no matter which direction the antenna is pointed. Confused, they thought of different sources of noise. They thought they might be picking up radar, noise from New York City, or radiation from a nuclear explosion. Or could pigeon droppings be the culprit?
While examining the antenna, Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson “subjected its electrical circuits to an examination similar to that used in preparing a manned spacecraft,” Walter Sullivan wrote in his book. The New York Times in 1965. However, the mysterious hiss remained.
The cosmological underpinnings of noise have finally been explained with the help of physicists at Princeton University, who speculated that there might be radiation coming from all directions left over from the Big Bang. It turns out that this buzz was just a cosmic echo. It confirmed that the universe was not infinitely old and static, but rather began as a primordial fireball that left the universe bathed in background radiation.
Dr. Penzias said years later that this discovery intensified his interest in astronomy. He and Dr. Wilson went on to discover dozens of types of molecules in interstellar clouds where new stars are forming.
“Their discovery represents a transition between a period when cosmology was more philosophical, with very few observations, and the golden age of observational cosmology,” said Paul Halpern, a physicist at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and author of Flashes of Creation. : George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate“,” he said in a phone interview.
Not only did this discovery help solidify the grand narrative of the universe; It also opened a window through which the nature of reality could be explored, all as a result of that annoying hiss first heard 60 years ago by two novice physicists searching for something else.
Arno Alain Penzias was born on April 26, 1933 in Munich to Jewish parents, Karl and Justine (Eisenreich) Penzias. Dr. Penzias later pointed out, to almost anyone he met, that his birth coincided with the day and place on which the Gestapo, the German secret police, was created.
His father was a wholesale leather merchant. His mother, who ran the household, had converted to Judaism from Roman Catholicism in 1932.
In the fall of 1938, the Penzias were arrested and put on a train for deportation to Poland.
“Fortunately for us, the Poles stopped accepting Jews just before our train reached the border,” Dr. Penzias said in a eulogy during his mother’s funeral in 1991. The train returned to Munich. In the late spring of 1939, 6-year-old Arno and his brother Gunther, 5, were put on a train as part of the Child Transport, the British rescue effort that brought about 10,000 children to England.
His mother asked Arno to take care of his brother. “I only realized much later that she didn't know if she would ever see any of us again,” he said in his eulogy.
“Each of us was given a big box of chocolates,” recalls Günter Penzias over the phone. I fell asleep on the train, and my bag was stolen. So Arno shared it with me.”
The boys' parents were able to leave Germany for England, and the family arrived in New York City in 1940. Karl and Justine found work as supervisors in a series of apartment buildings in the Bronx, which gave the family places to live.
Dr. Penzias told The New Yorker that he attended Brooklyn Technical High School and “kind of drifted into chemistry.” in 1984. He enrolled at the City College of New York in 1951 with the intention of studying chemistry, but found that he had already learned too much of the material. After one of his professors assured him that he could make a living as a physicist, he changed his major, graduating in 1954. That year, he married Anne Barras, a student at Hunter College. They divorced in 1995.
After two years as a radar officer in the Army Signal Corps, he entered graduate school at Columbia University, where he earned master's and doctoral degrees in physics, the latter in 1962.
But Dr. Penzias' path to stumbling upon the answer to one of humanity's most important questions began a year ago, when he joined Bell Labs as a member of its radio research group in Holmdel.
There, he saw the potential of AT&T's new space communications antenna, a giant radio telescope known as the Holmdel Horn, as a tool for cosmic observation. In collaborating with Dr. Wilson in 1964 to use the antenna, one of their goals was to advance the emerging field of radio astronomy by accurately measuring many bright celestial sources, Dr. Wilson said in a recent interview.
But shortly after they began their measurements, they heard hissing. They spent months ruling out possible causes, including pigeons.
“The pigeons would go and roost at the little end of the horn, depositing what Arno called a white insulating substance,” Dr. Wilson said. “And we didn't know if the pigeon feces produced some radiation.” So the men went up and cleaned it. The noise continued.
Finally, it was Dr. Penzias' penchant for chatting on the phone that led to a serendipitous breakthrough. (“It was a good thing he worked for the phone company,” Dr. Wilson said, “because he liked using their machines. He talked to a lot of people.”)
In January 1965, Dr. Penzias called Bernard Burke, a fellow radio astronomer, and during their conversation he mentioned the puzzling hiss. Dr. Burke suggested that Dr. Penzias contact a physicist at Princeton University who was trying to prove that the Big Bang had left traces of cosmic radiation. he did.
Intrigued, scientists from Princeton visited Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson, and together they made the connection between the Big Bang. The theory and observation were then brought together in two papers published in 1965.
Dr. Penzias remained at Bell Labs for nearly four decades, spending 14 years as Vice President of Research. His interests reached beyond science, into business, art, technology and politics. After his 1978 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm, he traveled directly to Moscow to lecture on his findings to a group of disapproving scientists. He later helped many of them leave the Soviet Union.
In 1992, Dr. Penzias arranged for the Holmdel Horn's receiver and calibration equipment to be donated to the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where it remains part of the permanent exhibition.
His daughter, Rabbi L., said. Shifra Weiss-Penzias, in an interview: “It was very important for my parents to remind them of what they had lost.” “He wanted his work to be a living reminder of the refugees who left and the people who died.”
Dr. Penzias married Sherri Levitt, a Silicon Valley executive, in 1996. In addition to his daughter; His son David. His brother, Gunther Dr. Penzias, is survived by his wife. another daughter, Mindy Dirks; stepson Carson Leavitt. stepdaughter Victoria Zaroff; 12 grandchildren; and three grandchildren.
Shortly after the Nobel Prize was announced, President Jimmy Carter sent a congratulatory telegram to Dr. Penzias. “I came to the United States 39 years ago as a penniless refugee from Nazi Germany,” he replied, adding that for him and his family, “America meant a haven of safety as well as a land of freedom and opportunity.”
“Web maven. Infuriatingly humble beer geek. Bacon fanatic. Typical creator. Music expert.”