Arno Penzias arrived in America as a penniless Jewish refugee child who escaped Nazi Germany. He went on to become one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, as a famed Bell Labs researcher who proved the existence of the Big Bang and put to rest the ageless debate over the origins of our universe.
Penzias passed away on January 22, 2024, bringing his remarkable life story to an end at the age of 90.
“The two things that drove him most were curiosity and tenacity,” said his son, David Penzias.
Nowhere was that curiosity and tenacity exemplified more than in his single greatest scientific accomplishment. Together with Robert Wilson, Penzias discovered cosmic background radiation on May 20, 1964. Working with a sensitive radio antenna at the Bell Labs Crawford Hill Laboratory outside Holmdel, New Jersey, they came across a persistent hiss that seemed to be coming from all parts of the sky and had no obvious explanation.
At first, they suspected it was background noise coming from New York City or radiation from a nuclear explosion. At some point they even wondered if it was the result of pigeon droppings inside the 20-foot horn antenna they were using.
“It was worrisome for a long time,” Wilson explained. “Something was going on that we didn’t understand. We both believed in physics, and we both knew that it had to come from somewhere. There had to be some explanation for what we were seeing. We thought of it as a problem and after we ticked off all these things we were running out of excuses.”
When the low, steady noise refused to disappear even after they had removed all its possible sources, the duo ultimately came to recognize the mysterious radio signal for what it was: cosmic radiation that had survived from the earliest days of the universe. In other words, it was the experimental proof of the Big Bang, the vast explosion that created the universe some 13.8 billion years earlier.
Penzias and Wilson shared the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery that forever changed our understanding of the cosmos. The Nobel committee described it as one that “made it possible to obtain information about cosmic processes that took place a very long time ago, at the time of the creation of the universe.”
Thus, it provided the long-sought evidence of the Big Bang theory of a dynamic and evolving universe rather than the alternative steady-state theory that suggested a more static, timeless expanse growing into infinite space.
Penzias and Wilson began their historic quest with far more modest ambitions. The Holmdel Horn antenna was initially designed for early experiments for satellite communication. Penzias and Wilson sought to use it as a radio telescope to make cosmological measurements.
It reflected the typical Bell Labs culture – to work on a problem with a real human need, such as satellite communications, but also follow the curiosity of the researchers to understand their experiments and be open for new discoveries that led to new directions.
“The first thing I thought of was — study the galaxy in a way that no one else had been able to do,” Penzias said in a 2004 interview with the Nobel Foundation.
Penzias’s son David said that approach reflected the core of his father’s being. The philosophical elements of the discovery were not lost on Penzias, and he felt comfortable speaking about it to lay people and religious figures alike. But the primal drive came from the science.
“At his core, he was a scientist,” said David Penzias. “There was a lot more to him. He had many interests, was deeply concerned about human rights and civil rights and was an early feminist. But first and foremost, he was a scientist.”
Much of Penzias’s world view derived from his challenging beginnings.
Penzias was born in Munich on April 26, 1933, on the same day and in the same city as the establishment of the Gestapo, the notorious German secret police. Five years later, the family was arrested and narrowly avoided deportation to Poland.
The following year, a 6-year-old Arno and his brother, Gunter, 5, were put on a train as part of the Kindertransport, the British rescue effort that brought some 10,000 children to England. Eventually, their parents joined them and, thanks to a Jewish-American stranger’s act of kindness, the family was granted entry to the United States. They arrived in New York City in 1940 where the parents secured housing by working as apartment building superintendents.
“I’ve always thought differently. I’ve never felt, maybe from childhood on, I’ve never felt really part of anything. I’ve always felt a little special, a little different,” Penzias told the Nobel Foundation, detailing his exposure to Nazism in Germany and poverty in the U.S. “So, there’s more pain involved, but there’s an awful lot of perspective.”
Penzias later served for two years as a radio officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his PhD in physics at Columbia University. He then joined Bell Labs because of his particular interest in the Horn Antenna that would later lead to his famous discovery.
In his storied 37 years with the company, he eventually became the chief scientist and vice president of research at Bell Labs. He later moved to Silicon Valley where he channeled his scientific knowhow into venture capital consultancy for promising start-up enterprises.
In addition to his Nobel Prize, Penzias collected several other accolades for his contributions to astronomy and applied science, including the Henry Draper Medal and the Harold Pender Award.
Penzias and Wilson continued to collaborate even after their seminal 1964 discovery. Among their other breakthroughs were the 1970 discovery of carbon monoxide and other simple molecules in interstellar clouds where stars were forming. For that they used a mm-wave receiver developed at Bell Labs for communications. As with the growth of cosmology after their Big Bang discovery, mm-wave radio astronomy and the study of star formation began to take off as well after the cardon monoxide discovery.
Wilson, now 88, said the differences in demeanor between him and Penzias contributed to their scientific partnership and lifelong friendship.
“Arno was more outgoing and talked to a lot of people,” he said. “In those days, when calls cost a lot of money, I used to say that it was good that he worked for the phone company because he liked to use the instrument.”
But the piece of equipment they had the most shared affinity toward was the Holmdel Horn Antenna, which become a National Historic Landmark and for whose preservation they both advocated.
“I think we both realized that we had an unusual instrument and that we should exploit its unique capabilities,” Wilson said. “It was perfect for our ‘accidental’ discovery.”
Penzias is survived by three children, six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, two stepchildren and six step-grandchildren.
His son David said his father loved his adopted home of the United States and throughout all his achievements remained thankful to the country that took him in as a child and provided him with opportunities.
“America has meant a haven of safety as well as a land of freedom and opportunity,” Penzias wrote then-President Jimmy Carter, in response to the president’s congratulations on his Nobel win. “I feel compelled to bear witness to the fulfillment of the American promise in my personal life experience. I am very proud to be an American, very grateful to America and to the American people.”