Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up
It all started with the sound of static. In May 1964, two astronomers at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were using a radio telescope in suburban New Jersey to search the far reaches of space. Their aim was to make a detailed survey of radiation in the Milky Way, which would allow them to map those vast tracts of the universe devoid of bright stars. This meant that Penzias and Wilson needed a receiver that was exquisitely sensitive, able to eavesdrop on all the emptiness. And so they had retrofitted an old radio telescope, installing amplifiers and a calibration system to make the signals coming from space just a little bit louder.
But they made the scope too sensitive. Whenever Penzias and Wilson aimed their dish at the sky, they picked up a persistent background noise, a static that interfered with all of their observations. It was an incredibly annoying technical problem, like listening to a radio station that keeps cutting out.
At first, they assumed the noise was man-made, an emanation from nearby New York City. But when they pointed their telescope straight at Manhattan, the static didn’t increase. Another possibility was that the sound was due to fallout from recent nuclear bomb tests in the upper atmosphere. But that didn’t make sense either, since the level of interference remained constant, even as the fallout dissipated. And then there were the pigeons: A pair of birds were roosting in the narrow part of the receiver, leaving a trail of what they later described as “white dielectric material.” The scientists evicted the pigeons and scrubbed away their mess, but the static remained, as loud as ever.
For the next year, Penzias and Wilson tried to ignore the noise, concentrating on observations that didn’t require cosmic silence or perfect precision. They put aluminum tape over the metal joints, kept the receiver as clean as possible, and hoped that a shift in the weather might clear up the interference. They waited for the seasons to change, and then change again, but the noise always remained, making it impossible to find the faint radio echoes they were looking for. Their telescope was a failure. Read more.