Saving open space and history in one Big Bang

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by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

“Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state; Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait; The Earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool …”

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If you’re a fan of the Big Bang Theory television series, you probably can sing the rest of the show’s theme song lyrics – which explain, briefly and humorously, how the Earth and life began.

But this isn’t about a TV sitcom featuring a nerdy but endearing bunch of astrophysicists. It’s about a place in New Jersey where, almost 60 years ago, real scientists helped confirm the Big Bang theory, the leading explanation of how the universe began.

Officials in Holmdel Township, Monmouth County, just announced plans to buy the historic Horn Antenna and 35 surrounding acres using the township’s Open Space Trust Fund. The acquisition will prevent the iconic site from being developed for townhouses.

The Horn Antenna is a radio telescope located atop Crawford Hill, on what was once the campus of Bell Laboratories, the research arm of the old Bell Telephone system. There, in 1964, two young astronomers accidentally discovered powerful evidence confirming the Big Bang Theory.

The Big Bang Theory holds that the beginning of time started 13.7 billion years ago with an infinitely hot and dense single point, containing the entirety of the universe. A sudden, explosive expansion ballooned the universe outward in a fraction of a second, seemingly faster than the speed of light.

The Big Bang Theory was first proposed in 1927 by Belgian physicist and astronomer Georges Lemaître. Two years later, American astronomer Edwin Hubble – for whom a space telescope was named – expanded on the theory by observing that other galaxies were moving away from us, meaning the universe is still expanding. It could be inferred, then, that if galaxies are moving apart, they had long ago been close together.

But there was a lack of scientific evidence to support the Big Bang Theory. That’s where New Jersey comes in.

In May 1964, radio astronomers Dr. Robert Wilson and Dr. Arno Penzias were conducting unrelated research at Bell Labs’ radio antenna in Holmdel when they heard a strange and persistent hum that came from all directions in the sky. The buzzing puzzled the scientists, who initially thought the noise might be caused by pigeons roosting in the antenna – a large aluminum box through which radio waves are funneled. They removed the pigeons and their waste, but the radio antenna continued to pick up noise.

At a colleague’s suggestion, they called researchers at Princeton University, who had been searching for evidence relating to the Big Bang. The head of the Princeton team, Robert Dicke, realized that Wilson and Penzias had stumbled upon something much bigger than radio interference: They had accidentally discovered cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, leftover heat that began saturating the universe after the Big Bang.

The Bell Labs and Princeton groups met, and each published papers in the Astrophysical Journal in 1965. The discovery inspired scientists around the world to conduct further studies of CMB radiation. Penzias and Wilson won the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics for their work, and the Horn Antenna was declared a national historic landmark in 1989.

But historic places are not necessarily protected places, and a developer eventually acquired the Crawford Hill property after the Bell Labs complex was sold.

For the past year, residents, conservationists, and astronomy buffs – including Wilson, who still lives in Holmdel – have been pushing for the preservation of the Horn Antenna and surrounding land on Crawford Hill. Now that an agreement has been reached between the township and the developer, it is hoped that the transaction can take place quickly.

“This breakthrough will allow future generations to observe the Horn Antenna, a National Historic Landmark located within Holmdel, as well as the impressive views that can be observed from the highest point in Monmouth County, all as part of a sprawling 35-acre public park,” said Holmdel Mayor D.J. Luccarelli in a statement.

All New Jerseyans – as well as astronomers outside this state we’re in – will benefit from saving the Horn Antenna. The place that shed light on the birth of the universe is indeed a landmark worth preserving, and the beautiful hilltop land will be a splendid place for walking or observing the night sky!

For more about the Horn Antenna, go to https://holmdel-cilu.org/holmdel-horn-antenna. For a more technical explanation of the expansion of the universe, go to https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/06/17/ask-ethan-can-the-universe-ever-expand-faster-than-the-speed-of-light/?sh=3cf4ebb0b841.

To learn about viewing the night sky, check out an observatory or astronomy club near you. One great choice is the William McDowell Observatory in DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst, which has free, open hours for public viewing every Wednesday night. Go to https://www.njsea.com/observatory/ for more information.

Astronomy clubs in New Jersey include:

For more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org

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