Arno Penzias


 Biografia estratta da Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971-1980. 

nobelprize1978 Premio Nobel per la Fisica

(1936- vivente) The Nobel Prize in Physics I was born in Munich, Germany, in 1933. I spent the first six years of my life comfortably, as an adored child in a closely-knit middle-class family. Even when my family was rounded up for deportation to Poland it didn't occur to me that anything could happen to us. All I remember is a long train trip and scrambling up and down three tiers of narrow beds attached to the walls of a very large room. After some days of back and forth we were returned to Munich. All the grown-ups were happy and relieved, but I began to realize that there were bad things that my parents couldn't completely control, something to do with being Jewish. I learned that everything would be fine if we could only get to "America". One night, shortly after my sixth birthday, my parents put their two boys on a train for England; we each had a suitcase with our initials painted on it and a bag of candy. They told me to be sure and take care of my younger brother. I remember telling him, "jetzt sind wir allein" as the train pulled out. My mother received her exit permit a few weeks before the war broke out and joined us in England. My father had arrived in England almost as soon as the two of us, but we didn't see him because he was interned in a camp for alien men.

The only other noteworthy event in the six or so months we spent in England awaiting passage to America occurred when I found that I could read my school books. We sailed for America toward the end of December 1939 on the Cunard liner Georgic using tickets that my father had foresightedly bought in Germany a year and half earlier. The ship provided party hats and balloons for the Christmas and New Year's parties, as well as lots of lifeboat drills. The grey three-inch gun on the aft deck was a great attraction for us boys. We arrived in New York in January of 1940. My brother and I started school and my parents looked for work. Soon we became "supers" (superintendents of an apartment building). Our basement apartment was rent free and it meant that our family would have a much-needed second income without my mother having to leave us alone at home. As we got older and things got better, we left our "super" job and my mother got a sewing job in a coat factory; my father's increasing wood-working skills helped him land a job in the carpentry shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the pressures on him eased, he later found time to hold office in a fraternal insurance company as well as to serve as the president of the local organization of his labor union. It was taken for granted that I would go to college, studying science, presumably chemistry, the only science we knew much about. "College" meant City College of New York, a municipally supported institution then beginning its second century of moving the children of New York's immigrant poor into the American middle class.

I discovered physics in my freshman year and switched my "major" from chemical engineering. Graduation, marriage and two years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, saw me applying to Columbia University in the Fall of 1956. My army experience helped me get a research assistantship in the Columbia Radiation Laboratory, then heavily involved in microwave physics, under I.I. Rabi, P. Kusch and C.H. Townes. After a painful, but largely successful struggle with courses and qualifying exams, I began my thesis work under Professor Townes. I was given the task of building a maser amplifier in a radioastronomy experiment of my choosing; the equipment-building went better than the observations. In 1961, with my thesis complete, I went in search of a temporary job at Bell Laboratories, Holmdel, New Jersey. Their unique facilities made it an ideal place to finish the observations I had begun during my thesis work. "Why not take a permanent job? You can always quit," was the advice of Rudi Kompfner, then Director of the Radio Research Laboratory. I took his advice, and have remained here ever since. Since the large horn antenna I had planned to use for radio-astronomy was still engaged in the ECHO satellite project for which it was originally constructed, I looked for something interesting to do with a smaller fixed antenna. The project I hit upon was a search for line emission from the then still undetected interstellar OH molecule. While the first detection of this molecule was made by another group, I learned quite a bit from the experience. In order to make some reasonable estimate of the excitation of the molecule, I adopted the formalism outlined by George Field in his study of atomic hydrogen. To make sure that I had it right, I took my calculation to him for checking. One of the factors in the calculation was the radiation temperature of space at the line wavelength, 18-cm. I used 2 K, a somewhat larger value than he had used earlier, because I knew that at least two measurements at Bell Laboratories had indications of a sky noise temperature in excess of this amount, and because I had noticed in Hertzberg's Diatomic Molecule book that interstellar CN was known to be excited to this temperature. The results of the calculation were used and forgotten. It was not until Dr. Field reminded me of them in December of 1966, that I had any recollection of the earlier connection. So much for the straight-line view of the progress of science! The successful detection of OH at MIT made me look for a larger antenna. At the invitation of A.E. Lilley, I took key parts of my equipment to the Harvard College Observatory and spent several months participating in various OH observations. In the meantime, the horn antenna was pressed into service for another satellite project. A new Bell System satellite, TELSTAR, was due to be launched in mid-1962. While the primary earth station at Andover, Maine, was more-or-less on schedule, it was feared that the European partners in the project would not be ready at launch time, leaving Andover with no one to talk to. As it turned out, fitting the Holmdel horn with a 7-cm receiver for TELSTAR proved unnecessary; the Europeans were ready at launch time. This left the Holmdel horn and its beautiful new ultra low-noise 7-cm traveling wave maser available for radio astronomy. This stroke of good fortune came at just the right moment. A second radio astronomer, Robert Wilson, came from Caltech on a job interview, was hired, and set to work early in 1963. In putting our radio astronomy receiving system together we were anxious to make sure that the quality of the components we added were worthy of the superb properties of the horn antenna and maser that we had been given. We began a series of radio astronomical observations. They were selected to make the best use of the careful calibration and extreme sensitivity of our system. Among these projects was a measurement of the radiation intensity from our galaxy at high latitudes which resulted in the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, described in Wilson's lecture. When our 7-cm program was accomplished, we converted the antenna to 21-cm observations including another microwave background measurement as well as galactic and intergalactic atomic hydrogen studies. As time went on, the amount of front line work that we could do became increasingly restricted. Much larger radio telescopes existed and they were being fitted with low-noise parametric amplifiers whose sensitivity began to approach that of our maser system. As a result we began looking for other things to do. An investigation of the cosmic abundance of deuterium was clearly an important problem. However nature had put the deuterium atomic line in an all but inaccessible portion of the long wavelength radio spectrum. I remember saying, to Bob Dicke, something to the effect that I didn't relish giving three years of my professional life to the measurement of the atomic deuterium line.

He immediately replied, "Finding deuterium is worth three years". Fortunately, a better approach to the measurement of deuterium in space soon became available to me. Up through the late 1960's the portion of the radio spectrum shortward of 1-cm wavelength was not yet available for line radio astronomy owing to equipment limitations. At Bell Laboratories, however, many of the key components required for such work had been developed for communications research purposes. With Keith Jefferts, a Bell Labs atomic physicist, Wilson and I assembled a millimeter-wave receiver which we carried to a precision radio telescope built by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak, Arizona, early in 1970. This new technique enabled us to discover and study a number of interstellar molecular species. Millimeterwave spectral studies have proved to be a particularly fruitful area for radio astronomy, and are the subject of active and growing interest, involving a large number of scientists around the world. The most personally satisfying portion of this work for me was the discovery in 1973 of a deuterated molecular species, DCN. Subsequent investigations enabled us to trace the distribution of deuterium in the galaxy. This work provided us with evidence for the cosmological origin of this important substance, which earned the nickname "Arno's white whale" during this period. From the first, I made it my business to engage in the communications work at Bell Labs in addition to my astronomical research. It seemed only reasonable to contribute to the pool of technology from which I was drawing. Similarly, Bell Labs has always been a contributor to, as well as a user of, the store of basic knowledge, as evidenced by their hiring of a radio astronomer in the first place. As time went on, the applied portion of my efforts included administrative responsibilities. In 1972 I became the Head of the Radio Physics Research Department upon the retirement of A.B. Crawford, the brilliant engineer who built the horn antenna Wilson and I used in our discovery. In 1976, I became the Director of the Radio Research Laboratory, an organization of some sixty people engaged in a wide variety of research activitites principally related to the understanding of radio and its communication applications. Early in 1979, my managerial responsibilities increased once again when I was asked to assume responsibility for Bell Labs' Communications Sciences Research Division. While I continued the personal research which traced the effects of nuclear processing in the Galaxy through the study of interstellar isotopes, pressure from other interests curtailed my entry into a new area - the nature and distribution of molecular clouds in interstellar space. Instead, I barely managed to introduce this subject to two of my graduate students who explored it in their PhD theses. Then, toward the end of 1981, an unexpected event imposed an abrupt end to my career as a research scientist, when AT&T and the US Department of Justice decided to settle their anti-trust suit by breaking up the Bell System. In the process, I received yet another promotion-this time to Vice-President of Research-at a moment when two-thirds of the traditional research funding base moved off with the newly-divested local telephone companies. As a result, I found myself facing several issues at once: What sort of research organization did the new AT&T require? How to create this new organization without destroying the world's premier industrial research laboratory in the process? Would the people in this large and tradition bound organization accept and support the changes needed to adapt to new economic and technological imperatives? Needless to say, such matters kept me quite busy. In retrospect, the research organization which emerged from the decade following the Bell System's breakup deploys a far richer set of capabilities than its predecessor. In particular, our work features a growing software component, even as we strive to improve our hardware capabilities in areas such as lightwave and electronics.

The marketplace upheaval brought forth by increased competition has helped speed the pace of technological revolution, and forced change upon the institutions all industrialized national, Bell Labs included. While change is rarely comfortable, I am happy to say that we not only survived but also grew in the process. Except for two or three papers on interstellar isotopes, my tenure as Bell Labs' Vice-President of Research brought my personal research in astrophysics to an end. In its place, I have developed an interest in the principles which underlie the creation and effective use of technology in our society, and eventually found time to write a book on the subject Ideas and Information, published by W.W. Norton in 1989. In essence, the book depicts computers as a wonderful tool for human beings but a dreadful role model. In other words, if you don't want to be replaced by a machine, don't act like one. The warm reception this book received in the US, and the ten other countries which published it in various translations has given me much satisfaction. I have also been a visiting member of the Astrophysical Sciences Department at Princeton University from 1972 to 1982. My occasional lecturing and research supervision were more than amply repaid by stimulating professional and personal relationships with faculty members and students.