US radio astronomer who in 1964, with the German-born US radio engineer Arno Penzias, detected cosmic microwave background radiation, which is thought to represent a residue of the primordial Big Bang. He and Penzias shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978 for their work on cosmic microwave background radiation.
He also investigated the presence of interstellar carbon monoxide, and the composition of dark gas clouds of the Milky Way.
Wilson was born in Houston, Texas, and studied at Rice University, Houston, Texas, and the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. He was a fellow in radio astronomy at the California Institute of Technology 1962–63. In 1963 he joined the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey; he was made head of the radiophysics department in 1976.
In 1964, Wilson and Penzias tested a radiotelescope and receiver system for the Bell Telephone Laboratories with the intention of tracking down all possible sources of static that were causing interference in satellite communications. They found a high level of isotropic background radiation at a wavelength of 7.3 cm/2.9 in, with a temperature of 2.735 K (−270.4°C/−454.7°F). This radiation was a hundred times more powerful than any that could be accounted for on the basis of any known sources.
Unable to explain this signal, Wilson and Penzias contacted US physicist Robert Dicke at Princeton University, New Jersey, where it was immediately realized that their findings confirmed predictions of residual microwave radiation from the beginning of the universe.
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