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Arno Penzias (1933-2024)

March 18, 2024

The technology manager is an unique breed of scientist who has knowledge not only of science and technology, but business administration as well. Just as an orchestra will quickly go off-tempo without a conductor, a group of research scientists will follow their curiosity into a scatter of directions not related to the mission of their corporate or government laboratory. A technical manager is needed to ensure a reasoned evaluation of the research done by scientists, the monitoring of scientists' spending, and as an agent who summarizes the research of his group to a typically science-agnostic upper management.

There are master of science programs for technology management at many universities. These are typically offered by their business school; but, as a graduate of such a program told me, a scientist has no problem becoming a good technology manager, but it's likely impossible for a business administrator to become one. One scientist who made the transition to technology management was co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background radiation and 1978 Nobel Physics Laureate, Arno Penzias.

Bell Labs in 2007, and Arno Penzias in 2007

Bell Labs, Murray Hill, New Jersey, in 2007, and Arno Penzias in 2007. Left image by Blaxthos, and right image by Jayan Kartik, both from Wikimedia Commons

Penzias was director of the AT&T Radio Physics Research Laboratory from 1976 to 1979, and had a very long tenure as vice president of research at AT&T Bell Labs from 1981 to 1995, a period that included the breakup of the Bell System that started the slow decline of Bell Labs as a principal research center. Arno Penzias died on January 22, 2024, at age 90.[1-4]

Penzias, whose parents were Polish Jews, was born in Munich, Germany, on April 26, 1933.[1-3] In early 1939, Penzias and his four-year-old brother, Günther, emigrated to England through the assistance of a British children's rescue organization.[1] They were joined later by their parents, and the family eventually emigrated to the United States in late 1939.[2,4] His parents became superintendents of an apartment building in New York City, which gave them an apartment free from rent.[4] Later, his mother worked in a coat factory, and his father worked as a carpenter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[4]

Penzias attended the Brooklyn Technical High School, the alma mater of another Nobel Laureate, George Wald (1906-1997), who was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1951, after high school, Penzias attended the City College of New York, where he was initially enrolled in chemical engineering.[1-2,4] At the encouragement of one of his professors, Penzias switched his major to physics during his freshman year.[1-2,4] After graduation from the City College of New York in 1954, he served two years as an officer in the US Army Signal Corps working on radar.[1,3]

After two years in the Signal Corps, Penzias started graduate school at Columbia University (New York, NY) in the Fall of 1956.[4] His radar experience got him a research assistantship to work on microwave physics in the Columbia Radiation Laboratory with I.I. Rabi (1898-1988), Polykarp Kusch (1911-1993) and Charles H. Townes (1915-2015).[4] Penzias did his thesis work under Townes to build a maser amplifier and do radio astronomy observations.[4] He received his Ph.D. in 1962.[3]

Penzias joined the Bell Labs Radio Physics Research Department at Crawford Hill, Holmdel, New Jersey, in 1961 to develop microwave receivers for radio astronomy.[1,3] Penzias originally intended to remain at Holmdel for just a short time, but he was advised by the director of the Radio Research Laboratory to accept a permanent position.[3] He was allowed to use a large aperture (six meter) horn antenna at Crawford Hill for his radio astronomy observations.[1] This antenna was previously used for radio communications in the ECHO Satellite Program.[1] Penzias was joined in 1963 by Robert Wilson (b. 1936) in observations of radio emissions from the Milky Way.[4]

The Crawford Hill horn antenna.

The Crawford Hill horn antenna used by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in their radio astronomy research.

(Screenshot from a YouTube video by Nokia Bell Labs.[5] Click for larger image.)

During their observations, Penzias and Wilson observed an unexplained baseline noise in their receiver at a wavelength of 7.35 cm.[3] They replaced a possibly suspect portion of the antenna and conjectured about the source of this radio noise, thinking that it might emanate from nearby New York City, or from pigeon excrement inside the antenna.[2,5] They saw that this baseline noise came from all regions of the sky, and it was not associated with the Milky Way.[1] They had discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang.

This radiation is the remnant of a very early stage of the universe that occurred about 0.4 million years after the Big Bang; that is, 0.03% into the present age of the universe, and it corresponds to a thermal black body spectrum at a temperature of about 2.725 K. Penzias and Wilson shared half of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics for their "... fortuitous discovery of a form of radio noise that bathes the cosmos... a crucial piece of evidence for how the universe was created."[2] In a strange pairing of things involving low temperature, half of that year's physics prize was awarded to Pyotr Kapitsa (1894-1984) for his work in low temperature physics.[3]

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1978

Arno Penzias (1933-2024) (left) and Robert Wilson (b. 1936) (right), standing at the horn antenna with which they discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation.

This image was taken in 1978 at the time of their award of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

(Image compliments of the Bell Labs archives. Click for larger image.)

Subsequent to their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, Penzias and Wilson searched for interstellar molecules using the larger, 11-meter antenna at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, where they found the 2.6 millimeter emission line of carbon monoxide in the Orion Nebula.[1] At that time, Penzias became a visiting professor at nearby Princeton University to supervise research projects of students in radio astronomy.[4] He saw his personal research in astrophysics come to an end with his transition to Vice President of Research and the break up of the Bell System that caused two-thirds of Bell Labs funding to disappear.[4] As Penzias wrote in his Nobel Foundation biography, "Needless to say, such matters kept me quite busy."[4]

In 1995, Penzias relocated to California to become chief scientist of the Bell Labs spin-off, Lucent Technologies.[1] He retired in 1998 at age 65, when he joined a silicon valley venture capital firm.[1.3] Along with the Nobel prize, Penzias was the recipient of the 1977 Henry Draper Medal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the 1990 George Pake Prize of the American Physical Society.[3]


  1. John Bally, "Obituary: Arno A. Penzias (1933–2024), co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background," Nature, vol. 627, no 30 (February 22, 2024), doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-00555-1. This is an open access article with a PDF file at same URL.
  2. Scott Neuman, "Arno Penzias, co-discoverer of the Big Bang's afterglow, dies at age 90," NPR, January 24, 2024.
  3. Michael Banks, "Arno Penzias: Nobel laureate who co-discovered 'echo of Big Bang' dies aged 90," Physics World, January 23, 2024.
  4. Arno Penzias, Biographical, NobelPrize.org, June, 2005.
  5. Learning about how the universe was born: The story of the Horn Antenna, YouTube video by Nokia Bell Labs, August 6, 2018.

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