Dr. Robert Wilson is an American astronomer, 1978 Nobel laureate in physics, who with Arno Allan Penzias discovered in 1964 the cosmic microwave background radiation.
While working on a new type of antenna at Bell Labs in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, they found a source of noise in the atmosphere that they could not explain. After removing all potential sources of noise, including pigeon droppings on the antenna, the noise was finally identified as cosmic background radiation, which served as important corroboration of the Big Bang theory.
Wilson graduated from Lamar High School in River Oaks, Houston, and studied as an undergraduate at Rice University, also in Houston, where he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society. His graduate work was done at California Institute of Technology.
American astrophysicist Robert Woodrow Wilson developed an interest in electronics and radio transmissions as a youngster. In his high school years he earned spending money by repairing radio and television sets, built his own hi-fi system, and helped ham operators build and fix their machinery, though he says he lost interest in such devices as soon as they were working again.
He studied at CalTech, worked at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, and was hired at the Bell Telephone Laboratories at Holmdel, New Jersey in 1963, where he was the second radio astronomer alongside Penzias. When budget cuts were announced, and Bell decided it could only afford one radio astronomer, Wilson and Penzias offered to cut their paid work to half-time, and both continued their work there, using an advanced radio telescope to monitor radio waves from the Milky Way galaxy.
In 1964, they discovered a consistent background buzz received from all directions, which they first suspected was a mechanical problem or a reflection of terrestrial broadcasting. Instead, further research revealed that they had discovered cosmic background radiation, a quiet but consistent remnant of the “big bang” that began the universe some 15 billion years ago. They were promptly returned to full-time status, and both scientists were honored with the Nobel Prize in 1978.
Wilson’s later work has included millimeter wave astronomy, measuring the sun’s radiation in the earth’s atmosphere, quantifying interstellar isotopes, and investigating the properties of molecules detected in open space.
Wilson and Penzias also won the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977.
Wilson remained at Bell Laboratories until 1994, when he was named a senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he remains today.