Today, Alcatel-Lucent, the corporate entity that inherited Bell Labs, is celebrating one of the lab’s most momentous discoveries: the cosmic microwave background, a remnant of the Big Bang. Since its discovery, the study of the cosmic microwave background’s details has continued to pay dividends in our understanding of the Universe and its formation, with the latest results being released just this year.
We’re a long way from 1964, where pigeon droppings in New Jersey were an experimental complication.
Seeing the background
The story of the cosmic microwave background’s discovery is anything but a sudden eureka-like breakthrough, which makes putting an exact date on it a pointless exercise. Back in 1964, Bell Lab’s Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson weren’t looking to do astronomy; they were trying to do microwave communications, something directly relevant to Bell Lab’s parent company. The problem they had was that no matter where they pointed their equipment, there was a steady hum of noise.