Image of the Day: Big Bang, not pigeon poo

Credit: AMNH

Fifty years ago, in 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were messing around with Bell Labs' Horn Antenna (pictured above), trying to detect radio waves bouncing off reflective high altitude balloons. They systematically reduced all of the variables that might have been causing extra noise in their data, but they still ended up with what seemed like an unaccountably high amount of residual radiation.

Nobody had any idea where it was coming from, and the more straightforward answer seemed to be an unknown variable within the measurement system itself, leading the researchers to (first) evict a family of pigeons living in the antenna and then (eventually) scrub all of the pigeon droppings to make sure that they weren't causing the anomalous readings.

Ultimately, Penzias and Wilson realized that they weren't seeing the signature of pigeon poo on their antenna, but rather the signature of the birth of the Universe itself: cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Spread across the entire sky, it looks like this:

Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for their discovery, and the antenna is now a national historic landmark.

No word on the fate of the pigeons.

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Via Scientific American

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