Arno Allan Penzias is an American physicist and recipient of the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics. He was born on April 26, 1933, in Munich, Germany. In 1939, at age six, Penzias’ family was rounded up for deportation to Poland. After spending several days on a train, Penzias and his family were returned to Munich. His parents then arranged for him and his brother to travel to England as part of the Kindertransport. Penzias’ parents later joined their sons in England and arranged for their immigration to the United States. In January 1940, the Penzias’ arrived and settled in New York.
Penzias became a naturalized American citizen in 1946. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1951 and received a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1954. After serving two years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Penzias applied to Columbia University, where he would receive his master’s degree in 1958 and Ph.D. in 1962. Penzias then took a job at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, where he worked for the next thirty-seven years. There, Penzias worked with Robert Woodrow Wilson on ultra-sensitive cryogenic microwave receivers intended for radio astronomy observations.
In 1964, on building their most sensitive antenna/receiver system, Penzias and Wilson encountered radio noise that they could not explain. It was far less energetic than the radiation given off by the Milky Way, and it was isotropic, so they assumed their instrument was subject to interference by terrestrial sources. They tried, and then rejected, the hypothesis that the radio noise emanated from New York City. An examination of the microwave horn antenna showed it was full of pigeon droppings (which Penzias described as "white dielectric material"). After the pair removed the guano buildup, and the pigeons were shot (each physicist says the other ordered the deed), the noise remained. Having rejected all sources of interference, the pair published a paper announcing their findings. This was later identified as the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), the radio remnant of the Big Bang. This allowed astronomers to confirm the Big Bang, and to correct many of their previous assumptions about it.
Penzias and Wilson were awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research, sharing the prize with Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa, who won the award for his unrelated basic inventions and discoveries in the field of low-temperature physics. Penzias and Wilson also received the Henry Draper Medal in 1977 and hold two patents in the field of communications technology.
Penzias currently serves as a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates.