WHAT’S IN A ‘PRIZE?’

In 1948 two scientists, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, predicted the existence of a cosmic microwave background radiation created shortly after the beginning of the Universe. It was important because it would provide evidence for the notion of a “Big Bang origin for the Universe. While that idea simmered through the scientific community – the “Big Bang” was a new idea not yet accepted as the “scientific consensus,” – more mundane things were being researched.

In 1964, two other scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Telephone Laboratories were developing equipment that they intended to use for radio astronomy and satellite communication experiments. But they encountered some baffling problems. They kept detecting spurious signals they could not explain. They even cleaned pigeon poop out of their large “horn” antenna, thinking it might be the source of their problem.

Meanwhile, down the road at Princeton, Robert Dicke, who had built some of the equipment being used by Penzias and Wilson, was in the process of beginning a search for the cosmic background radiation predicted by Alpher and Herman. Penzias and Wilson called Dicke to see if he might have any ideas that would help them with their problem. It did not take long for Dicke to realize that Penzias and Wilson had found what he was preparing to search for – the cosmic background radiation. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for that discovery.

Here’s the important thing to remember about this. Penzias and Wilson weren’t looking for the cosmic background radiation when they found it. And when they found it, they didn’t know what it was that they found. And yet they received the Nobel Prize. Weird, huh? Not as weird as Obama being awarded the Peace Prize for doing nothing, but … well … you know

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