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On May 20, 1964, American radio astronomers Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, the ancient light that began saturating the universe 380,000 years after its creation. Bell Labs' Holmdale Horn Antenna in New Jersey picked up an odd buzzing sound that came from all parts of the sky at all times.
Radio astronomers Bob Wilson and Arno Penzias detected the signature of the Big Bang's afterglow at the Crawford Hill Horn Antenna in New Jersey. The two radio astronomers won the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics for their work, sharing the award with Soviet scientist Pyotr Kapitsa. The cosmic microwave background is the oldest light in the universe, dating from the first epoch in which photons could travel freely.
The microwave background radiation is markedly uniform, lending support to the theory of cosmic inflation, which posits that the universe expanded much faster than the speed of light just a few tiny fractions of a second after the Big Bang.
This map of the cosmic microwave background radiation is based on data from the European Space Agency's Planck probe.
Although the radiation map is surprisingly uniform, it also reveals tiny temperature variations that signify areas of different densities.


Scientists have extracted a great deal of information from the cosmic microwave background over the years. Bell Labs hosted a 50th anniversary celebration Tuesday at its Holmdale facility, which Penzias and Wilson — who are now 81 and 78 years old, respectively — attended, along with Bell Labs President and CTO Marcus Weldon. During the event, Bell Labs — the research arm of Paris-based company Alcatel-Lucent — announced the establishment of the Bell Labs Prize, a competition that gives scientists around the globe the chance to share their ideas in the fields of information and communication technology. The challenge offers a grand prize of $100,000; second prize is worth $50,000, and there's a $25,000 third prize. Also on Tuesday, Alcatell-Lucent announced plans to open a new Bell Labs office near Tel Aviv, Israel.
The noise puzzled Wilson and Penzias, who did their best to eliminate all possible sources of interference, even removing some pigeons that were nesting in the antenna. The cosmic microwave background was the predicted thermal echo of the universe's explosive birth. Shortly after the Big Bang, the cosmos was a seething-hot, opaque fog of plasma and energy.


Bennett is principal investigator of NASA's sky-mapping Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which launched in 2001 and gathered data until 2010. These density fluctuations were the seeds that eventually gave rise to stars, galaxies and all the other structures that we observe in the universe today, researchers say.
The landmark find put Big Bang theory on solid ground, suggesting that the cosmos did indeed grow from a tiny seed — a single point — about 13.8 billion years ago. Things changed about 380,000 years later, when temperatures dropped enough for electrically neutral atoms to form, and the universe became transparent.



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