“Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox,
they tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.”

— “Across the Universe,” Lennon & McCartney

You would think the story of John Nash *50, as immortalized in A Beautiful Mind (remember, first see the movie, then read the biography), would be the most poignant Nobel Prize saga you could ever hope to find. But of course there have been many others – stories of inspiring winners like the great Marie Curie, co-recipient of the physics prize with her husband, Pierre. Following his accidental death, she went on to win the chemistry prize alone, only to be repeatedly scorned by the French Academy of Sciences because of her sex, then to die of the same radiation that was her momentous discovery. And there are poignant stories of deserving non-winners, as we saw here last time: the great physicist and legendary teacher John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton, surrounded through three prolific scientific lifetimes – 96 years – by Nobel winners and an inspiration to them all, cited and praised in their Nobel lectures, but never awarded one himself.  

But even in this rarefied company, it’s very likely that Bob Dicke ’39 wins the Not-A-Nobel Prize.  

When he returned to Princeton to teach in 1946 after research work during World War II, the term Big Bang did not even exist. There were two principal competing ideas about the origins and condition of the universe: the steady-state model that as the universe grew new matter was being created, and the “primeval atom” expansion model based on Einstein’s theories and Hubbell’s observations of an expanding universe. Fred Hoyle, the leading proponent of the steady-state view, in a 1949 interview derisively portrayed his opponents’ idea as a “Big Bang,” and the epithet stuck. Those who supported it, including young Dicke, realized that in addition to the whizzing galaxies documented by Hubbell, there should be microwave-radiation vestiges of the original event in space, moving out in time. Dicke had even invented a device during the war – the Dicke radiometer – that could measure it. This wasn’t a sexy topic in astronomy in the ’50s, so he worked on a variety of general relativity projects while building his career. Gradually, by 1964 he had assembled a team in the physics department at Princeton to define and measure that radiation as potential proof of the Big Bang. Jim Peebles *62 described how the radiation might be found and identified in the cosmos, and young David Wilkinson and Peter Roll began to construct a Dicke radiometer to measure it, to be installed on the roof of Palmer Lab. Peebles, in the best painstaking scientific manner, began circulating his unpublished paper on the cosmic background radiation to interested experts for comment before it was submitted for publication and global scrutiny. One of them was Bernard Burke of MIT.

Meanwhile, in Holmdel, 25 miles from Princeton as the microwave bounces, the good folks over at Bell Labs were building a better phone line. In the aftermath of NASA’s successful Echo satellite launches, they were doing research on bouncing bundled communications signals off passive satellites with huge hypersensitive horns as ground-based receivers. Physicist Arnold Penzias and astronomer Robert Wilson were having terrible problems in their Holmdel horn with a low hiss they couldn’t filter from the reflected signal. They removed New York City background noise. Hiss. They shooed away a batch of pigeons in the big horn. Hiss. They scrubbed out the residual pigeon poop (really, no kidding). Hiss. In all kindness, the only possible conclusion is that they didn’t have a clue. Penzias, in casting about for explanations, called up (presumably on a nice clean landline) his friend Burke. Burke described young Jim Peebles’ paper and its import, and it began to dawn on Penzias that he was quite literally out of his galaxy.

His next call was to Dicke at Palmer Lab. By coincidence, Bob was in a meeting with Peebles, Wilkinson, and Roll over technical details of their receiver. After a brief conversation, he hung up and uttered the knowing words, “Well, boys, we’ve been scooped.” Like pigeon droppings. After a visit to Holmdel confirmed what Bell Labs unwittingly had, the two groups agreed to publish their findings jointly, with a paper by Dicke’s group (essentially the one Peebles had been circulating) laying out the cosmic microwave background theory and another by Penzias and Wilson detailing their discovery of the radiation, carefully and explicitly noting the accompanying Princeton letter as the likely explanation. In one swoop, the meaningful debate over the Big Bang was ended.

The resulting Nobel Prize was given to Penzias and Wilson.  

Now, there’s a batch of petty detail to debate here. A Nobel can’t go to more than three people, and Penzias and Wilson technically split half a prize, so there was no more room when it was awarded in 1978. But if you’re going to split it in half, why not Penzias and Dicke? Some say that the prize is really for discoveries, not theories, but that hardly explains how Einstein ended up with one, or why that would disqualify the inventor of the Dicke radiometer, to this day the standard cosmic microwave measurement device. The folks in Sweden aren’t forthcoming with much along those lines. They’re the Nobel Committee – they don’t have to be.  

Anyway, the Princeton group got hosed. Much to their credit, it seemed to have no residual effect. Bob Dicke (the theorist?) went on to hold 50 patents, including a critical and ubiquitous engineering tool, the lock-in amplifier, as well as lasers and a clothes dryer. David Wilkinson became the go-to guru of cosmic background radiation, eventually the centerpiece of the cosmology group at Princeton. Following his death from cancer in 2002, the Wilkinson MAP satellite that he carefully shepherded to its launch was named for him; it’s the most advanced measuring device for cosmic background radiation ever built. Jim Peebles has done continuous groundbreaking work in dark matter, dark energy, nucleosynthesis and the origin of galaxies. All three have won multiple major awards around the physics and cosmology world, and guided a generation of high-powered and wildly productive Princeton physics students.  

Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.
Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.
Illustration by Steven Veach
But since Dicke’s fateful words in 1964, “Boys, we’ve been scooped,” none of the boys have been among the 10 Princetonians who have won the Nobel Prize in Physics.  

Here’s a Princeton fun fact for you: Remember Robert Wilson of Bell Labs? His middle name is Woodrow.