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When Radio Astronomy
Takes You Off The Beaten Path

by Nicole Gugliucci

You may or may not be familiar with the story of the detection of the Cosmic Microwave Background in 1964 by Bell Lab scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. This is a wonderful story of the serendipity in scientific discovery, the importance of combining theory and observation, and bird poop.

The story is well told in other venues, but the short version I give my students was that, in an attempt to get the most sensitivity out of their instrument, they tried to remove all sources that could affect the “noise.” This included chasing out a bunch of pigeons who had been roosting there and cleaning out their poop (scientifically known as “a white dielectric”). Still, however, the noise persisted. Turns out… it was the faint signal from the Universe that helped to solidify the Big Bang Theory as the model for the start of it all!

This instrument, often called the Holmdel Horn Antenna for the town in New Jersey where it resides, is iconic for radio astronomers. In graduate school, I spent a lot of time working at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, touring historical telescopes like the 140-foot telescope which is built like a battleship, seeing the refurbished antenna that Grote Reber built in his spare time to start exploring the galaxy in radio waves when no one else was, and even tracking down a hidden gem known as “Little Big Horn,” once used to determine a calibration scheme for the entire radio sky.

I don’t remember how I came across it one day, but I noticed that the Holmdel antenna was listed as a site on Google Maps one time when I was in the area visiting family. I managed to take a drive out to see it on the land owned by whichever company (maybe Nokia by then?) Bell Labs had eventually become part of some time in the past. I’m sure there was a sign somewhere indicating that it wasn’t a public road, but, in my excitement, I probably didn’t see it. I found the antenna quite easily! It had a little plaque and I was standing there taking pictures when a security guard came over to inform me that I was on private property and why was I stopped here taking pictures? I excitedly talked about my love of historical radio telescopes and received a puzzled look in response. Apparently, he didn’t get that a lot around there.

Turns out, however, I am far from the only one excited about the Holmdel antenna. In 2021, a developer bought the land and planned to turn it into a residential development. A group of local citizens started a petition to save the antenna, a National Historic Landmark, and succeeded late last year as the town agreed to buy the land with plans of turning it into a public park, saving the antenna for posterity. I’d forgotten about my petition signature until last month when the town officially bought the land and introduced an ordinance to name the spot Dr. Robert Wilson Park.

I got a chance to meet Bob Wilson once when I was a grad student in Green Bank. After a day of field work and puzzling over data, I was in my observatory dorm room when my friend Paul sent me a message along the lines of “GET TO THE LOUNGE NOW! WILSON OF “PENZIAS AND WILSON” IS TELLING THE PIGEON POOP STORY!”

I high-tailed it down the hall to the Drake Lounge where the Nobel Prize winning radio astronomer was just wrapping up talking about the past and moving on to discuss the work that he and current collaborators were doing with millimeter and sub-millimeter interferometry. At some point in the conversation, they were talking about the Event Horizon Telescope, the successful collaboration that produced the first ever images of the event horizon around a supermassive black hole. I don’t know if it even officially had that name yet! So, yeah, that’s one time I got to meet a Nobel-prize winning scientist who was lovely and generous with his time and still working to push the boundaries of radio astronomy instrumentation.

You can follow news of the site at the “Citizens for Informed Land Use” site. I, for one, am definitely looking forward to visiting the Horn Antenna. You know, legally.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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