Robert Woodrow Wilson

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Robert Woodrow Wilson
Robert Wilson (28215880301) (cropped).jpg
Wilson in 2016
Born (1936-01-10) January 10, 1936 (age 84)
Nationality United States
Alma mater Rice University
California Institute of Technology
Known for Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
Awards Henry Draper Medal (1977)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1978)
Scientific career
Fields Physics

Robert Woodrow Wilson (born January 10, 1936) is an American astronomer who, along with Arno Allan Penzias, discovered cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) in 1964. [1] The pair won the 1978 Nobel prize in physics for their discovery. [2]


While doing tests and experiments with the Holmdel Horn Antenna at Bell Labs in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, Wilson and Penzias discovered a source of noise in the atmosphere that they could not explain. [3] After removing all potential sources of noise, including pigeon droppings on the antenna, the noise was finally identified as CMB, which served as important corroboration of the Big Bang theory.

In 1970 Wilson led a team that made the first detection of a rotational spectral line of carbon monoxide (CO) in an astronomical object, the Orion Nebula, and eight other galactic sources. [4] Subsequently CO observations became the standard method of tracing cool molecular interstellar gas, and detection of CO was the foundational event for the fields of millimeter and submillimeter astronomy.

Life and work

Robert Woodrow Wilson was born on January 10, 1936, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from Lamar High School in River Oaks, in Houston, [5] and studied as an undergraduate at Rice University, also in Houston, where he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society. He then earned a PhD in physics at California Institute of Technology.

Wilson and Penzias also won the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. [6] Wilson received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement in 1987. [7]

Wilson remained at Bell Laboratories until 1994, when he was named a senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. [8]

Wilson has been a resident of Holmdel Township, New Jersey. [9]

Wilson married Elizabeth Rhoads Sawin [10] in 1958. [11]

Wilson is one of the 20 American recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics to sign a letter addressed to President George W. Bush in May of 2008, urging him to "reverse the damage done to basic science research in the Fiscal Year 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill" by requesting additional emergency funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. [12]

Related Research Articles

Cosmic microwave background Electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe in Big Bang cosmology

The cosmic microwave background, in Big Bang cosmology, is electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe, also known as "relic radiation". The CMB is faint cosmic background radiation filling all space. It is an important source of data on the early universe because it is the oldest electromagnetic radiation in the universe, dating to the epoch of recombination. With a traditional optical telescope, the space between stars and galaxies is completely dark. However, a sufficiently sensitive radio telescope shows a faint background noise, or glow, almost isotropic, that is not associated with any star, galaxy, or other object. This glow is strongest in the microwave region of the radio spectrum. The accidental discovery of the CMB in 1964 by American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson was the culmination of work initiated in the 1940s, and earned the discoverers the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Cosmic noise and galactic radio noise is random noise that originates outside the Earth's atmosphere. It can be detected and heard in radio receivers. Cosmic noise characteristics are similar to those of thermal noise. Cosmic noise is experienced at frequencies above about 15 MHz when highly directional antennas are pointed toward the sun or to certain other regions of the sky such as the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Celestial objects like quasars, super dense objects that lie far from Earth, emit electromagnetic waves in its full spectrum including radio waves. We can also hear the fall of a meteorite in a radio receiver; the falling object burns from friction with the Earth's atmosphere, ionizing surrounding gases and producing radio waves. Cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) from outer space, discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who later won the Nobel Prize for this discovery, is also a form of cosmic noise. CMBR is thought to be a relic of the Big Bang, and pervades the space almost homogeneously over the entire celestial sphere. The bandwidth of the CMBR is wide, though the peak is in the microwave range.

Timeline of knowledge about the interstellar medium and intergalactic medium

Pyotr Kapitsa Soviet physicist

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Arno Allan Penzias American physicist

Arno Allan Penzias is an American physicist, radio astronomer and Nobel laureate in physics. Along with Robert Woodrow Wilson, he discoverered the cosmic microwave background radiation, which helped establish the Big Bang theory of cosmology.

Carl David Anderson American scientist

Carl David Anderson was an American physicist. He is best known for his discovery of the positron in 1932, an achievement for which he received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics, and of the muon in 1936.

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Holmdel Horn Antenna

The Holmdel Horn Antenna is a large microwave horn antenna that was used as a satellite communication antenna and radio telescope during the 1960s at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, United States. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988 because of its association with the research work of two radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In 1965 while using this antenna, Penzias and Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) that permeates the universe. This was one of the most important discoveries in physical cosmology since Edwin Hubble demonstrated in the 1920s that the universe was expanding. It provided the evidence that confirmed George Gamow's and Georges Lemaître's "Big Bang" theory of the creation of the universe. This helped change the science of cosmology, the study of the history of the universe, from a field for unlimited theoretical speculation into a discipline of direct observation. In 1978 Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery.

Discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation

The discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation constitutes a major development in modern physical cosmology. The cosmic background radiation (CMB) was measured by Andrew McKellar in 1941 at an effective temperature of 2.3 K using CN stellar absorption lines observed by W. S. Adams. Theoretical work around 1950 showed the need for a CMB for consistency with the simplest relativistic universe models. In 1964, US physicist Arno Penzias and radio-astronomer Robert Woodrow Wilson rediscovered the CMB, estimating its temperature as 3.5 K, as they experimented with the Holmdel Horn Antenna. The new measurements were accepted as important evidence for a hot early Universe and as evidence against the rival steady state theory. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their joint measurement.

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Observational cosmology is the study of the structure, the evolution and the origin of the universe through observation, using instruments such as telescopes and cosmic ray detectors.

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Ralph Asher Alpher American cosmologist

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Robert Herman was a United States scientist, best known for his work with Ralph Alpher in 1948-50, on estimating the temperature of cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang explosion.

Crawford Hill

Crawford Hill is located in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, United States. It is Monmouth County's highest point, standing at least 380 feet above sea level. The hill is best known as the site of an annex to the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex.

John C. Mather American astrophysicist and cosmologist

John Cromwell Mather is an American astrophysicist, cosmologist and Nobel Prize in Physics laureate for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite (COBE) with George Smoot.

George Smoot American astrophysicist and cosmologist

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Charles L. Bennett American astronomer

Charles L. Bennett is an American observational astrophysicist. He is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, the Alumni Centennial Professor of Physics and Astronomy and a Gilman Scholar at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Principal Investigator of NASA's highly successful Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).

Cosmic background radiation electromagnetic radiation from the sky with no discernible source

Cosmic background radiation is electromagnetic radiation from the Big Bang. The origin of this radiation depends on the region of the spectrum that is observed. One component is the cosmic microwave background. This component is redshifted photons that have freely streamed from an epoch when the Universe became transparent for the first time to radiation. Its discovery and detailed observations of its properties are considered one of the major confirmations of the Big Bang. The discovery of the cosmic background radiation suggests that the early universe was dominated by a radiation field, a field of extremely high temperature and pressure.


  1. May 2014, Mike Wall 20. "Cosmic Anniversary: 'Big Bang Echo' Discovered 50 Years Ago Today". Retrieved 2020-03-13.
  2. "The Nobel Prize in Physics 1978". Retrieved 2020-03-13.
  3. Penzias, A.A.; Wilson, R.W. (1965). "A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s". Astrophysical Journal . 142: 419–421. Bibcode:1965ApJ...142..419P. doi:10.1086/148307.
  4. Wilson, R.W.; Jefferts, K.B.; Penzias, A.A. (1970). "Carbon Monoxide in the Orion Nebula". Astrophysical Journal . 161: L43–L44. Bibcode:1970ApJ...161..L43P. doi:10.1086/180567.
  5. "Distinguished HISD Alumni Archived 2012-02-25 at WebCite ," Houston Independent School District
  6. "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences . Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  7. "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  8. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-04-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971-1980, Editor Stig Lundqvist, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992. Autobiography on Accessed March 15, 2011. "We still live in the house in Holmdel which we bought when I first came to Bell Laboratories."
  10. "Robert Woodrow Wilson - Biographical". Retrieved 2016-06-07.
  11. "Robert Woodrow Wilson". Retrieved 2016-06-07.
  12. "A Letter from America's Physics Nobel Laureates" (PDF).