The Vibrant Mind of David T. Wilkinson

Mar 20, 2006 1:44pm

I spent Friday trying to explain the beginnings of the universe; there’s new data to show the universe “inflated” from infinitesimal to astronomical in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.  Personally, I don’t think I did very well; it’s hard to sum up 13.7 billion years of the cosmos in a minute and 45 seconds, harder still to do it when you only have about nine hours to get your act together.  I know our piece contained errors; the worst part is that I don’t know what all of them were.

But I had a head start.  Back when I was a college freshman, newly arrived at Princeton, I took an introductory physics course taught by a patient, smiling genius named Dave Wilkinson.

I was terrified.  I was seventeen years old.  I’d recently given up on my childhood dream to be an astronaut.  I was in over my head.  Dave Wilkinson’s course was the first that went really well for me.  (I got an A, but he made it easy–your term paper could be a science-fiction story that showed off your newly-acquired knowledge of physics.)

Wilkinson, by the time I knew him, was entitled to be a very bitter man.  He was on a research team that had missed out on a Nobel Prize by an Angstrom.  In the 1960s they were looking for evidence of the Big Bang.  They theorized that if indeed the Bang had happened, one discernible trace should be a very faint hiss picked up by radio antennae, in the microwave part of the spectrum, coming from every part of the sky.

30 miles away, at a Bell Laboratories installation in Holmdel, New Jersey, two young physicists named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were experimenting with a large radio antenna, and there was this constant hiss, in the microwave part of the spectrum, that was coming from every part of the sky.  They had no idea what it was.  They dismantled and rewired their receiver.  They cleaned the antenna of bird droppings.  In confusion, or so the story goes, they called Dave Wilkinson’s boss at Princeton, a physicist named Robert Dicke.  Wilkinson was in the room. In minutes, Dicke knew what Penzias and Wilson were talking about.  “Well, boys, we’ve been scooped,” he said after he hung up.

The rest, as they say, is history; Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Physics Prize in 1978–even though several writers have sniped that they really didn’t understand just why.

But Dave Wilkinson kept smiling, and kept at it, designing new experiments better to measure the “Cosmic Microwave Background” that Penzias and Wilson had detected and he and his colleagues had explained.  A satellite called COBE (COsmic Background Explorer) was launched in 1991.  A much more sensitive one, called MAP (Microwave Anisotropy Probe) was launched in June 2001. (The word “Anisotropy” has to do with finding different properties of the microwave signals by measuring them from different directions.)

Fourteen months later, Dave Wilkinson died from cancer.  The Microwave Anisotropy Probe was renamed the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.  It was his spacecraft whose findings we reported last week.

–Ned

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