A recent column in Scientific American magazine bemoaning the current state of “war on facts” in this country quotes an old friend of ours who knows a thing or two about the value of facts. Robert Wilson is a physicist who, in 1978, won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with his Bell Labs partner for their discovery of the background radiation left over from the Big Bang that gave birth to all of us.
Bob is an understated kind of guy. But to this layman, he is a scientific superstar with a wry sense of humor. Some years ago, Bob and his wife invited my wife and me to join them and some of his Bell Lab colleagues for dinner at their house. The conversation, as you would expect, turned to developments of new technologies. That opened the door for me to wax enthusiastically about fiber optics that our local cable TV company was installing down the street. Not knowing, of course, how fiber optics actually work, I prattled on and on about how cool this relatively new technology was and what it would mean for communication. As I droned on, I noticed bemused smiles from the geniuses around the table. Finally, I blurted out something like, “OK, what have I said?” To which Bob replied, “Oh nothing. It’s all right. Its just…that guy sitting next to you? He invented fiber optics.” Bob moves in rarified company.
He will speak to you about stars and planets and all things cosmos at any level you wish to converse…elementary school science, high school cosmology, college metaphysics, or Stephen Hawking brilliance. Your choice, without a hint of condescension. Bob is modest about his Nobel accomplishment, which did nothing short of proving the Big Bang Theory about the creation of the universe. He is quick to tell you the discovery came about somewhat by accident.
He and his lab partner, the radio-astronomer Arno Penzias, were attempting to measure the radiation of gas clouds between stars floating around the heavens. But they were frustrated by unusual or nonsensical readings they were getting from the lab’s radio antenna. At first they suspected, of all things, pigeon droppings were interfering with their work. After some exhaustive research, they discovered the noise was hardly so mundane. It was the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB, which scientists say is an echo of the massive cosmic explosion that created our universe nearly 14 billion years ago.
You would think that someone who had made such a momentous discovery would speak in highly technical terms about the “scientific method” in pursuing factual knowledge that would transform theory into certainty. Perhaps Bob has spoken that way. But in Scientific American, he is quoted as once telling Congress, “The pursuit of scientific truth only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture.”
That is science as poetry and a most elegant way to combat the war on facts.