Data Makes Sense Only in Light of Theory

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson won a Nobel Prize for their work in detecting the “Cosmic Microwave Background.” In reality, many people were involved in its discovery, but none of the information forthcoming was complete until all pieces of the same puzzle were connected. Others like James Peebles, Robert Dicke, Ralph Alpher, Robert Herman, and George Gamow are some of the others who were important in narrowing down the science of Cosmic Microwave Background.

The discovery that surprised Penzias and Wilson was radio noise they noticed when using a new radio telescope. Thinking the reading was due to pigeons, “They even scrubbed the inside of the antenna to remove pigeon waste” (pg 1). The noise seemed to be a nuisance as background noise. They intended to “increase the accuracy of existing measurements of radio sources in the Milky Way” by use of the radio telescope (pg 2). Wilson and Penzias decided to go ahead and publish what measurements they had seen. This is an important piece of the puzzle. A scientist is to share his observations with the scientific community for it to have any worth.

Once Wilson and Penzias published their findings, other scientists were able to link their information to Cosmological theories. Their findings were exactly what Peebles, Dicke, Gamow, Alpher, and Herman needed to substantiate their claims. Once Wilson and Penzias were introduced to an interpretation of their measurements and calculations, science was able to blend the meaning to explain Cosmic Microwave Background, which has given strength to those who believe and teach the Big Bang theory.

Looking back at the process, it is key to recognize the role so the scientific method in the discoveries that were made. Wilson and Penzias built a radio telescope, new technology at the time, made an observation, verified it was working properly, made the same observation, and shared their ideas and findings. Other discussions took place as community analysis and through feedback, they were able to make more observations, publish more data, and make hypotheses with the wealth of data collected. Once the data was collected, the varying scientists were able to interpret data based on each person’s field of expertise. Working together, they were able to build their knowledge as a community and our scientific community is better off for it. Other scientists have been inspired by the findings all these gentlemen put together.


Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Williams, B., Kruse, J., Clough, M., Stanley, M., & Kerton, C. (2017). Data Makes Sense Only in Light of Theory: The Story of Cosmic Microwave Background. Story Behind the Science. Retrieved 26 October 2017, from

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