On a field just below the summit of Crawford Hill, the highest point in Monmouth County, N.J., almost within sight of the skyscrapers of Manhattan, sits a cluster of shacks and sheds. Next to them is the Holmdel Horn Antenna, a radio telescope somewhat resembling the scoop of a giant steam shovel: an aluminum box 20 feet square at the mouth and tapering to an eight-inch opening, through which the radio waves are funneled into the “cab,” a wooden hut on stilts. From a distance, the whole site could be mistaken for an old mining camp you might come across in Montana or Idaho.
What it once mined was the sky. While listening with the antenna in May 1964, two young radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, picked up an eerie and persistent hum from the heavens. For a long time, they thought it was caused by pigeon droppings that had accumulated in the horn. Instead, they eventually learned, they had detected the beginnings of space and time. They were listening to the last sigh of the Big Bang, which birthed the universe 13.8 billion years ago and is detectable now only as a faint, omnipresent hiss of microwave radiation.
Up until then, scientists had debated whether the universe even had a beginning; maybe it was timeless. That question was now settled. As important, the discovery brought the beginning of time into the lab, where it could be pinched, squeezed and dissected. Encoded in that microwave fuzz are vestiges of events that occurred when the cosmos was less than one-trillionth of a second old and brimming with energies far beyond the capacity of modern particle colliders.
The cosmic microwave background offered a new window into the nature of reality, one into which astronomers have been peering intently ever since. In 1978, Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery, and in 1988, the antenna was designated a National Historic Landmark, a symbol of humankind’s ingenuity, curiosity and persistence, and of nature’s ability to surprise and humble us.
Dr. Wilson, now 87, lives in Holmdel and still has the keys to the telescope. When he offered an invitation to visit this spring, I jumped at the chance. The antenna was at the center of a real estate dispute: The new owner of the site wanted to build a senior housing development there and possibly displace the antenna. The neighbors and various citizen groups were in an uproar. As a photographer and I made our way to Dr. Wilson’s house, we passed lawn sign after lawn sign: “Save Crawford Hill,” they said. “Save the Horn Antenna.” [Continue reading…]