Arno Penzias


Interview, June 2004

Interview with Dr. Arno Penzias by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2004.

Dr. Penzias talks about how he made his discovery, his approach to science (5:53), the work at Bell Labs and his own research (7:26), his childhood and the feeling of being different (15:16), and big issues in physics (19:10).

Interview transcript

Transcript from an interview with Dr. Arno Penzias, Nobel Laureate in Physics 1978, at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2004. Interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.

I just would like you, Professor Penzias, to start off with your great discovery. It has been described as one of the biggest discoveries the last century. It has changed the way we look at the universe. It confirmed the big bang theory. When did you and how did you realise that you were on something so big?

Arno Penzias: Original work stemmed from the ideas that I had when going to Bell Labs that we had a small antennae which had unique properties. And in some sense as a physicist you sometimes, you may have one burning ambition to do one thing, but as a student, I had just finished my PhD and I was going to, I’d come to Bell Labs because I was attracted to this antennae. Because it had some very interesting properties. It was small and so because it was small it would not, it was better at looking at extended objects. A larger antennae would be more focussed to the single spot and it would be more sensitive to small objects. But this one was better at looking at more extended objects. So that by itself would not make an enormous difference, but the antennae was also very easy to calibrate and because of its odd shape was also, suit itself to having extraordinarily sensitive receivers. Receivers which would not be possible in a normal antennae configuration.

QuoteThe first thing I thought of was study the galaxy in a way that no one else had been able to do …

I got the antennae and I was going to put a 21 centimetre receiver in the antennae. But the antennae when I got inherited, had another receiver, a very sensitive amplifier cooled with liquid helium, which had been put there for a satellite project with 7 centimetres wavelength. In other words a shorter wavelength, the higher frequency. And so I thought, before I threw this thing out, what could I do with that wavelength and with that receiver and that system? The first thing I thought of was study the galaxy in a way that no one else had been able to do. After a period of very careful measurements, not just day to night, but seasonally. During the period we’re doing this other experiment, we finally got to the point where I realised that there is nothing wrong with this experiment that we can find.

But then the only question was what to do with it. And since I’d had a whole bunch of other astronomical results, what I resolved to do was write it up and put it in a section of another paper. And so at least I was reporting it, but I wouldn’t if it turned out to be somebody said, ‘Oh you jerk, you forgot so and so’, I wasn’t going to make any claim for it. So I was going to put it in another paper. I started radio astronomy in the 1950s when Charles Townes, my thesis adviser, thought of starting a radio astronomy group. And as a group we studied a series of papers, which had been put together in an American engineering journal called The Proceedings for the IEEE, the same; I think it was called, in them days it was called something else. And it turned out every one of those papers was wrong; every single one.

Radio astronomy except for a few things was just in such a primitive state that we were really very scared of making mistakes. So we did this for a long time and only then in 1965 when a colleague, when I was getting ready to publish this thing in that form in part of another paper, pointed out that there had been a preprint from a scientist that prints in university who had an explanation in terms of what others had called the gamma theory. And at that point we felt we would take the stuff and publish it and very conservatively next to another paper. And this is a whole series of things I wrote about in my Nobel Lecture about who did what and so forth. But then this was the first result this having to do with the how old is the universe.

And since there are so many crackpot ideas in physics, as for physics in those days, when I studied astrophysics at almost exactly at that time, the Hubble constant, the age of the universe; the age of the universe was about one and a half billion years at a time the geologists thought that the earth was five billion years old. So nothing really made a lot of sense in those days. So one had to be very careful and didn’t think that any one theory was going to be the right one.

So what I did and I’ll finish that thought. So we signed up with that one not expecting it to be the only one. In fact it wasn’t, there were two other explanations for it. And it turned out the first one was correct. But certainly it was not, I certainly never had the confidence to believe that some theory, which had been had so many other things wrong with it, was going to be the right one. And that the first one that we bumped into so to speak turned out to be the right explanation. So that was the start of that work.

What did it teach you, in your life? I know you were very careful in the beginning and yet there was this amazing discovery that you made?

Quote… everything is done very carefully and absolutely in a precise way …

Arno Penzias: Well, that’s systematic. It’s I suppose it is, I’d always felt and I still do it, which is I’m quite meticulous. That’s something to do with my German upbringing I suppose. Early toilet training or whatever, I don’t know. But we really do, everything is done very carefully and absolutely in a precise way. You never do anything else. I remember one time speaking to a friend of mine who’s a psychologist. And I said to him, ‘Well you know I didn’t shine my shoes for, I got out the army and I think it was ten years before I shined my shoes. And I buy a car, I keep it for ten years. I paint it once half way through and then when it’s finally dead after ten years, I throw it away. I never wash it’. And he says ‘But everything inside works doesn’t it Arno?’ And I said ‘Yeah, everything inside works’. So that’s the kind of meticulous approach I’ve taken to science. That is that while I’m willing to be creative in other ways, I feel that measurements what to be done as precisely as possible.

You worked at Bells over the years, was that also part of that? Did you have the same kind of way of looking at work when you went in and worked at Bells as the boss at the research?

Arno Penzias: That was later. No that was two different things. When I was doing my own work, made my own research, I was always, that was a, my own astronomy research had always been very precise. I continued research even after being promoted several times and even until I became head of the research organisation in 1981. When I got this job at that point my responsibilities got so large that I think after my elevation to vice president, which is having about 1,000 PhDs working in my organisation and a budget of 100s of millions of dollars, it just stopped being fun to do astronomy. I still had a graduate student from Princeton and he got his thesis and that was finished and then I wrote one more paper, maybe two other papers after that. And I decided I just couldn’t be pulled in two directions. If I couldn’t do it well I didn’t want to do it as a hobby.

From that time on the things I did were really quite different. I had this organisation so I wanted to learn computer science, so I wrote a book on computers, which was a different, but it was a different sort of approach when you have to lead people. It’s a different kind of situation because you have to take risks, encourage other people to take chances. So it’s really quite different. In my own life, in the things that I do, I still do those things meticulously. And sometimes I do, in the calculations and such I probably take a rather, actually if I think about it, I take an accurate approach that is my results are I think in the work I’ve done since then, are accurate rather than precise. I step back more, so that try to understand what the important issues are and get an answer because it’s very different from questioning nature. There one has to make a decision based on, typically in a management position, even in what I would call leadership, social plan, in things which have economic or social consequences, you always have to make decisions on incomplete information. And so those are different.

QuoteSo you try to push nature to its extremes in order to make measurements …

In the case of physics, what we study artificially limited. We study, or at least very limited, very constrained questions and those physicists for instance measure things at either very cold, very hot, under tremendous pressure. So you try to push nature to its extremes in order to make measurements and then make them very precisely so you can get the measurements of nature. You can’t take the economy and twist it and put it into some argument.

I had a, on a totally different example there, in my organisation I had as I said 1,000 or more scientists, 100 department heads. And department heads and scientists would come with their PhDs and to become a department head was a nice thing. You got a secretary, you got promoted. So everyone, the idea, the ambition was to become, not the only ambition but for most people, becoming a department head was a big deal. Had 100 department heads and one of the nice things was we had a woman named Betsy Bailey who was an economist and she was a head of one of our economics departments and for a number of years. And then she left there and a very distinguished economist who went then to become head of the American Federal Aviation Administration. And I always liked having Betsy there because if on the rare occasion that we’d promoted a woman, we would then have two women department heads out of 100. And when the other one left we’d go back to one but then we’d often promote another one, so we’d always say the men and women who are department heads. We never had to say the men and woman, we could say men and women because we had two.

This went on for a while despite our best efforts and never promoted any women. One day the women came to me through a meeting. We had 100 women in my organisation and they said ‘You know why we are never promoted, when we never get the job. We’re always considered. And everybody wants to promote women, but we never get the job and do you know why?’ And I was here on this stage and 100 women you know and I thought I was a good guy. I thought we were doing our best and everything. What possible answer do we have? ‘Because we know why. Because we’re never the best qualified’. And they said why? I said ‘Well you have your best that you said’. ‘We have the same education as men though, but when the job comes up, we’re always considered. And we look at the two sets of experience. And the woman never has as good experience because they never get the really leading edge projects to work on. They’re always working on these other projects’. And because we get projects, nobody wants us to fail, so they seem to always give us the second best project, the safe project because we don’t have enough women, they’re helping us by giving us these safe projects. We never get the other projects. What do we do, how do we fix this?’ And I knew I couldn’t go back to the department heads and say ‘give women riskier projects; doesn’t work.

But this is an example of something that has nothing to do with precision. This is my other side, which is the wheeling and dealing side. And so I said, and I thought of this immediately, I said ‘Write a personal business plan’. ‘Personal business plan, what’s that?’ I said ‘put a horizontal line on a piece of paper. Put down a number which is the value, imagine that your project, whatever it is you’re going to do, is a success and give it a number. It could be dollars, or years of your life. I give five years, say you’re a medical student, I give ten years of my life to cure cancer, whatever. I said give a number, multiply it by the probability and divide it by the cost. So if that’s a big number do it, if it’s a small number don’t do it.

Well, it turned out that’s a very imprecise thing to do. And nobody knows exactly what the value is. And nobody knows exactly what the cost is and you don’t know what the probability is. Every one of those is a guess. But in the process of doing it, they first went to their department heads and the department heads came back and said ‘We don’t know its value’. So they said ‘Go ask the customer who is it going to benefit? Go and ask the beneficiary of this how much it’s worth to the beneficiary?’ So we don’t know who the beneficiary is. And all the women began to say ‘You’ve given me a job whose value you don’t know, who the beneficiary is you don’t know’. They started asking that question and within three years I think we had five or six or ten promotions and then my job today is held by one of the women that got promoted that time. So that’s another side. In some ways that’s an example of what you do when you’re a leader.

Was it difficult to make that transition for you from being a scientist to become a person which actually had to make completely different decisions?

Quote… I’ve always felt a little special, a little different …

Arno Penzias: That’s an interesting question; I don’t know. I’ve always thought differently. I’ve never felt maybe from childhood on, I’ve never felt really part of anything. I’ve always felt a little special, a little different. I was born in Germany. I only found out I was different when my parents told me I couldn’t join the Hitler youth. You know they all say ‘Adolf Hitler, heil, heil’. You know I wanted to join because there were all these kids having this great time. And my parents said ‘No you’re not going to join that’.

What does that mean? And a lot of things happened after that. Came to America and being poor and a whole bunch of things. So I’ve always been on the side. So the great benefit of that is always big city, up on the corner of whatever room I’m in and seeing what’s going on. So there’s more pain involved, but there’s an awful lot of perspective and I guess that started it.

In perspective I see that because you are looking for that in your current work as well. You’re looking at companies, you’re looking at people who have ideas in your interests. And I’ve seen you know what work with that presently. And you’re certainly looking and giving people opportunities I think, lectures.

Arno Penzias: The interesting thing about that is that here I am in my 70s with an incredible youth culture. I remember one of the companies I advised, this was a chap who started an internet service provider called EarthLink. EarthLink’s a very, I mean they are the second or third largest internet service provider in the United States. Was started by a high school graduate who decided he wanted to work in Hollywood and was doing some artwork, discovered computers and started this internet service when there was no such thing. He was the first one to invent the idea of flat chargers, $20 a month. All the others CompuServe gave people numbers and said they charge you for every minute, they had all these. And he said $20 a month all you can eat. He became rich enough to buy a car rental company before he was old enough to rent a car because you couldn’t rent a car until you’re 25. You can buy the car company, but you couldn’t do that.

So this is a culture where being young is no barrieror anything. So it’s all these kids, but the interesting thing is how he’s succeeded in that and far more than anything I could ever believe and it’s just because I look at things in different ways. And I do actually the opposite of the meticulous side of me. It’s interesting that they’re both there. I’m still extraordinarily meticulous in some things, but on the other hand I’m also willing to put, to estimate.

Was that something that came maybe with age as well where you had achieved what you had achieved, the Nobel Prize?

Arno Penzias: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t know where estimation came from. It’s certainly not something that, it’s a mystery to me. But I’ve become a very good, there’s almost nothing that I don’t estimate in some way and with whatever limited information I have. And it’s mysterious.

What do you see as the big questions then for example if you look at universe and cosmos, you know what was discussed at the Lindau meeting for example? You know the things we don’t know. Is it worth all the cost and effort when we look out in the universe?

QuoteBecause people with the second biggest machine have to be a little more clever …

Arno Penzias: I think one of the things there is, the effort in most case is individual that is the people are investing years of their life. On the other hand, the most costly things are not necessarily the most important. In the case of particle physics very often it’s not the biggest machine that makes the breakthrough experiments; often the second biggest machine. Because people with the second biggest machine have to be a little more clever, right. It’s like the British empire was started by the second sons, the ones who didn’t inherit because in England you know they have the primogenitary there. The oldest son inherits everything and the others get a good education, have to go off. And the British empire you know at one point the second sons conquered the world. So because you’re in a position where you have to catch up, you maybe do a little bit better. So I’m not sure that it’s always necessary to have big and expensive things.

I was probably the most vocal opponent of the superconducting super collider. This was a machine, a particle physics machine, which was going to be put into Texas. It was huge, a huge thing. I’ve always been against the man space flight program. Some things need to be done on a national scale, but other things don’t have to be. And so I think it’s important for there to be dialogues and those informed dialogues are something that, what to be put into some kind of perspective and there ought to be a budget.

Why were you against a man space?

Arno Penzias: Because it’s a stunt. You’re risking human lives. I mean I think putting a man on the moon at the time was a good idea and it was socially useful. In a sense it was like the two gorillas. Gorillas will go up and they’ll jump up and down and show their muscles to one another and the one that looks a little tougher than the other one goes away and nobody gets hurt. So that’s a nice thing to do. I mean I’m in the renaissance, you know, occasionally two armies would get together and the champions would have one little fight and then everybody would declare a winner without killing everybody. And I think between the United States and Russia, the fact that we got to the moon in America before the Russians did, said something about whether communism is really the future of the world and so forth. So for the man on the moon project’s ok, but beyond that, the rest of it makes really no sense.

So they could rather put robots in space?

Arno Penzias: Oh much better. Oh it’s much better. I mean I think it’s stupid and inhuman to put, I mean this poor, they put this teacher some years ago in this rocket and the poor lady burnt to death. Do you remember they had this crash of a rocket? And how could a teacher teach a class from space; what does she see? She looks out a port hole like that. Sit down here at Lindau and have a nice cup of coffee, have some strudel and watch a video camera that’s up in space that’s all, the only difference. And you don’t have to throw up on the way up because of weightlessness. Why would anyone do this? But it benefited people who I think in that case it’s just a bureaucracy feeding its own end. So I’m very much against the space program.

Does the scientist have some kind of responsibility to voice this do you think?

QuoteI think space program’s a wonderful thing …

Arno Penzias: But they do. I mean scientists do. The president of the American physical society, or there’s, I think in the case of the space program man space flight, I think the majority of scientists don’t go along with it, but it’s something every country likes and everyone wants to put up an astronaut in these things. But I think it’s a dreadful, personally I think it’s a dreadful idea. But you know I’m not an expert in this field, but I think it is not something that I really think is valuable. There’s a lot one can do, certainly the space one telescopes, the probes in our galaxy. But the satellite the work, I mean just simple things like global positioning, which makes airplanes safer and then people convenience in cars, all the studies of nature and its behaviours, predicting hurricanes, there’s enormous amount of information. So a space program I think is a great and beneficial both on the scientific, but much more on the practical side. I think space program’s a wonderful thing.

Do you think that one day with the kind of experiment that goes on and the ideas that we are formulating here on earth, that we will know whether there’s life after universe?

Arno Penzias: I doubt it. I really doubt it. I doubt it, but I could be wrong because I can’t think of an experiment that would do this. It’s probably the only question about where I care much more about the question than the answer. If we say that in our galaxy there are probably 200,000 million suns in our galaxy alone. And there are more than 100,000 million other galaxies. So think how many stars that is. And if among all those stars we are alone, we’re the only ones. I mean it just makes me shiver. It’s such a, it’s like you know you’re standing up, all of a sudden realise that there’s a cliff over here. It just makes me shiver. On the other hand if we’re not alone also makes me shiver. I mean either case we come back to the same question that was asked in the book of Ecclesiastes: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man that taketh notice of him. And they just, you know what is all this all about? Is it really as meaningless as scientist force themselves to believe?

Thank you very much Professor. One more time, thank you very much. And very nice to meet you.

Arno Penzias: Oh happy. I enjoyed it. It’s one of these things, it was nice to talk to you as well. I sometimes think with my mouth open because sometimes I learn things about myself just by talking about it.

Interview, June 2004

Interview with Dr. Arno Penzias by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2004.

Dr. Penzias talks about how he made his discovery, his approach to science (5:53), the work at Bell Labs and his own research (7:26), his childhood and the feeling of being different (15:16), and big issues in physics (19:10).

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