How Curiosity Led To A Nobel Prize

Whenever you’re trying to find something, it’s as if the more you focus on finding what it is you’re looking for, the more likely it is that you won’t find it. In that same scenario, it’s as if you’re able to find all of the things you’re not looking for. The problem here is that we become so focused on the thing that we’re looking for, that we don’t stop to investigate everything else we’ve looked over. In a similar vein, I want to share a story of when two scientists find something they weren’t particularly looking for but curiosity and persistence led to ground-breaking discovery.

In 1962, physicist and radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson began working alongside each other at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey. Each of them were on the edge of their seats waiting to use the giant antenna Bell Labs had earlier built, and with the launch of the Telstar satellite which made this giant antenna seemingly obsolete, the two could finally get their hands on it. When they first started using it, the two were intending to use the radio antenna for astronomy purposes.

Whilst calibrating their antenna to function similarly to a telescope, Penzias and Wilson noticed a background noise being recorded. Like static on a radio, this background noise was both uniform and persistent. Considering it came from all directions and never stopped, the two couldn’t ignore it, instead they worked to determine what exactly it was. Pointing the antenna directly at New York City ruled out the idea of city interference. Since the uniform static persisted through all four seasons, that meant it wasn’t coming from the solar system nor was it from the above-ground nuclear test because over a year there would have been a recorded decrease in radiation. With nothing else to do, they cleaned the satellite and removed the pigeons that had nested in there in case they were somehow causing this static to occur, but still the static remained.

During this time, two physicists over at Princeton were making major strides with the Big Bang theory and were working towards measuring relic radiation which they suspected to be an integral part of the theory. Penzias and Wilson were not familiar with the Big Bang theory at the time, however, a mutual friend between them and the two physicists was familiar with the work both teams were doing. Their mutual friend connected both teams, and together they concluded that Penzias and Wilson’s “static” was the relic radiation the physicists were looking for. Through accident and persistent exploration, Penzias and Wilson found themselves on the side of scientific breakthrough and the recipients of the 1978 Nobel Prize.

“This was a lovely example of science in action. The research was done for a specific scientific purpose but had ancillary technological and scientific benefits. The astronomers weren’t looking for what they found, but because they were extremely technologically and scientifically skilled, they didn’t dismiss their finding.” — Lisa Randall

You may be asking, what does this have to do with anything? The point I want to emphasize is, if you dismiss your findings and your research because it wasn’t quite what you were looking for, then be prepared for expected results time and time again. New and unexpected discoveries come from following a hunch and following a path that may not bring us the results we were hoping for initially. Granted that many times this may be a dead end with not much to gain, the inverse or failure to explore these paths is much more deadly for you have so much more to lose from lack of exploration.

The second extremely important point we can draw from this story is the importance of outside perspective. If Penzias and Wilson had worked entirely in isolation they wouldn’t have independently made the connection of their static to the Big Bang theory. The fact that a mutual friend existed between them and the Princeton physicists was extremely integral to their collective scientific discovery. It’s extremely easy to work independently or in isolation, but when we let other people see our work as it’s in progress, their outside perspective can guide us in new and exciting directions we otherwise wouldn’t have explored.

Whether you’re a designer, an artist, a business person, etc., we can all have something to gain from working similarly to scientists. If you’re a scientist, you can’t afford to dismiss any of your findings, even if it’s not what you’re looking for. I believe that’s the same with every profession. Having extreme tunnel vision for whatever it is you’re looking for or wanting to do can prove risky and quickly lead you down a road of stagnation. If you’re wanting to break-ground in your field or your career, you have to be willing to explore paths you landed on accidentally. We all want to be curious and persistent, but are you actually?