supersensitive horn antenna at the Bell Labs in New Jersey. They were attempting to study radiation from the space between galaxies, but like Jansky, they were having issues with interference. White noise seemed to be coming from everywhere in the sky, night and day, like the static between TV channels. After ruling out urban interference, extraterrestrial radio sources, nuclear tests, and faulty machinery, Penzias and Wilson turned on the pigeons living in the big, horn-shaped antenna. They shooed them out and scrubbed the antenna clean, but the pigeons kept flying back. ‘To get rid of them, we finally found the most humane thing was to get a shot gun…and at very close range [we] just killed them instantly,’ Penzias said in 2005. ‘It’s not something I’m happy about, but that seemed like the only way out of our dilemma. And so the pigeons left with a smaller bang, but the noise remained, coming from every direction.’ Finally, they learned that Princeton physicist Robert Dicke had predicted this very thing. If the Big Bang had occurred, Dicke thought, then low-level radiation would permeate the entire universe – an afterglow of its birth. He termed it the ‘cosmic microwave background’ and was just about to design an experiment to test his hypothesis when Penzias and Wilson discovered it. Legend has it that when he found out, Dicke turned to his colleagues and said, ‘Well boys, we’ve been scooped.’ That’s what happens in science, and in astronomy especially. You can predict the most groundbreaking scientific discovery of the twentieth century and never get the chance to find it yourself, or you can stumble across evidence without even trying and collect your Nobel Prize. The universe is vast, and we are so tiny and limited and lucky. And now we’re in the age of satellite astronomy, where telescopes are launched into orbit to escape the fuzziness of the Earth’s atmosphere. The first time a satellite was used to detect an astronomical object was – you guessed it – a total accident. In 1963, the US Air Force launched a series of satellites designed to monitor
nuclear radiation in order to enforce a recently signed treaty. But instead of detecting radiation from a nuclear blast, they found gamma radiation unlike any nuclear weapon’s signature. Turns out they discovered gamma ray bursts – one of the most violent explosions in the universe, thought to be caused by the collapse of matter into neutron stars or black holes. Since then, we’ve moved beyond Earth’s orbit and sent unmanned probes out into the solar system. By directly observing objects that were once untouchable, we discovered things we’d never dreamed of. In the 1970s Voyager I was sent on a grand tour of the planets, and it happened to observe that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, is volcanically active. Before the Voyager flyby, it was thought to be a dead world, but soon we had images zooming back to us of huge plumes of material being ejected into space. The Mars rovers have made their fair share of adorably accidental discoveries, too: running across chunks of meteorites, accidentally driving up unknown volcanoes, and finding evidence of water after churning up sand while bogged. The future will undoubtedly be just as riddled with surprises. With breathtaking technology like the Hubble Space Telescope and its successors, there’s no chance we won’t accidentally discover something incredible. Sometimes it seems like astronomy is just a series of accidents, stacked on top of each other. But really, astronomy is the people at a telescope or a screen who watch and wait, night after night, scrutinising data from the stars. They are the Galileos, the Janksys, the Messiers and the Hubbles. They are the ones who have the background and the passion to know when something groundbreaking appears. These people, more than anything, will shape the future of astronomy.
Lauren did not write any of her articles by accident. They took a lot of work and she’s thankful that you glance at them, once in a while, when nothing good is on TV.
Last Edition of 2014! INSIDE: Coming out, Native Land Title, bar map, Feminism.