THE HEAT FROM THE BIG BANG?

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In 1964, physi­cists Arno Pen­zias and Robert Wil­son at the Bell Tele­phone Lab­o­ra­to­ries in New Jer­sey were in­ves­ti­gat­ing in­ter­fer­ence that was af­fect­ing a horn-shaped an­tenna built for satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Their analysis sug­gested it was em­a­nat­ing from an in­cred­i­bly fee­ble source of heat, amount­ing to just a few de­grees above ab­so­lute zero (-273°C) – and bizarrely, it seemed to be com­ing from ev­ery­where in the sky at once.

When the pair de­scribed their find­ings to as­tro­physi­cists at nearby Prince­ton Univer­sity, the truth emerged: Pen­zias and Wil­son had de­tected the heat left over from the Big Bang. The mo­men­tous dis­cov­ery gar­nered the pair a share of the No­bel Prize for physics in 1978.

But by then, it was clear they weren’t the first to de­tect this pri­mor­dial heat. In 1940, Cana­dian as­tronomer An­drew McKel­lar found mol­e­cules in space whose prop­er­ties re­vealed the tem­per­a­ture of their sur­round­ings. He showed that these sug­gested the whole of space was a few de­grees warmer than ab­so­lute zero, but the sig­nif­i­cance of this was missed be­cause the­o­rists had yet to work out the con­se­quences of the Big Bang in de­tail. Sadly, McKel­lar never lived to see his claim vin­di­cated: he died in 1960, aged just 50.

RM The heat left over from the Big Bang is known as the cos­mic mi­crowave back­ground

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