Arno Allen Penzias

views updated

Arno Allen Penzias

At various times—and sometimes all at once— German-born American scientist Arno Penzias (born 1933) has been a researcher, educator, and businessman. Because of that, he has often been called a "renaissance man," someone who excels and exerts significant influence in a variety of areas. His most notable accomplishments were scientific— particularly in the field of astronomy—and his pioneering research resulted in him receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics. Working from the home base of Bell Laboratories, where he was employed for 37 years, Penzias would make scientific discoveries that provided new knowledge about the origin of the universe. He also was a prolific author, lecturer, and innovative businessman. As a high-ranking corporate executive, his innovative—indeed revolutionary— management strategies help create new paradigms that greatly influenced the direction of the corporate world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He has also been described as an engineer, philosopher, and humanitarian.

Early Life

Arno Allen Penzias was born April 26, 1933, in Munich, Germany, the eldest son of Karl and Justine Eisenreich Penzias. He had one brother, Gunther. His father was a self-employed leather broker. The closeknit knit, middle-class family lived a rather comfortable life in Adolf Hitler's pre-World War II Germany. However, in 1938, when Penzias was six years old, the Nazis deported Jews of Polish origin, including the Penzias family, to that country. (Penzias's grandfather was born in Poland, so the Nazis refused to recognize the family's German citizenship.) When the family arrived at the border, they were told that that Poland's deadline for accepting immigrants had transpired. The Penzias family was sent back to Germany, a circumstance that most likely saved their lives. According to Penzias, the Polish Jews who had arrived on time were placed in an open enclosure where more than half froze to death.

Once back in Munich, Karl Penzias sought ways to get his family safely out of the country and, hopefully, into the United States. In the first step of their journey, they made it to England. The British government accepted 10,000 Jewish children, including Arno and Gunther, on humanitarian grounds and Penzias's parents later acquired the necessary paperwork to enter the country. Finally, in 1939, the family obtained passage to the United States, leaving on an ocean liner. They arrived in New York City in January 1940.

Growing Up in the United States

Penzias attended public schools in the Bronx. His father found employment as an apartment building superintendent, which provided the family with rent-free housing. Later Karl Penzias worked in a carpenter shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while his wife worked in a coat factory, which provided the family with a much-needed second income. As a teenager, Penzias attended Brooklyn Technical High School. After graduation, he attended City College of New York, where he majored in chemical engineering. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class in 1954. Also during this period, Penzias met and married his wife, Anne. After graduation, Penzias served for two years as a radar officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. After the army, he applied to Columbia University in the fall of 1956 and got a research assistantship in the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory, which was then involved with microwave physics.

Began Relationship with Bell Labs

In 1956, Penzias enrolled as a graduate student. For his thesis, he was assigned to build a maser amplifier in a radioastronomy, a device he could then employ in an experiment of his choice. He studied under Charles Townes, a Bell Labs consultant who would later receive the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the maser and its later advancement, the laser. When Penzias completed his thesis in 1961, he got a temporary job at Bell Labs. Thus began a fruitful association that would last for 37 years. Later, he became a full-time member of the technical staff, conducting research in radio communications (radio astronomy, radio transmission, satellite communications, and radio reception). Employment at the labs provided him with the invaluable opportunity to participate in the groundbreaking, historic Echo and Telstar communications satellite experiments.

The "Big Bang" and Nobel Prize

It was at Bell Labs that Penzias established what would turn out to be a historically significant relationship with Bob Wilson, who was hired as a second radio astronomer by the company in 1963. Together, Penzias and Wilson were soon conducting research in radio astronomy and satellite communications, employing the company's extremely sensitive radio astronomy antenna. In 1965, using this highly sensitive receiving system to study radio emissions from the Milky Way, they discovered a faint signal—a low-level noise—that seemed to permeate all space. When they first discovered the signal, they attributed it to a number of sources including the Milky Way, the sun, the antenna itself, and even pigeon droppings. After eliminating these possibilities, they found—to their astonishment—that it seemed to emanate from outside the Galaxy. Then they realized the source was the entire universe itself. Later, Penzias had an opportunity to discuss the perplexing phenomena with Princeton physicist Robert H. Dicke, who was developing the Big Bang Theory of the universe. When Dicke went to Bell Labs to see for himself, he helped confirm Penzias and Wilson's discovery. Further, and more significantly, Dicke concluded that the two young researchers discovered what he had already predicted in his theory, that a background radiation at 3-degree Kelvin left over from the initial Big Bang would exist throughout the universe.

The existence of this microwave background radiation confirmed Dicke's theory about the creation of the universe. It not only answered the "how" but the "when:" 15 billion years ago. Penzias and Wilson's discovery, scientists would later say, was one of the most important in the history of the world. It was a major breakthrough in understanding the origin of the universe. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson would receive a Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery.

Career Advancement at Bell Labs

In addition to his astronomical research, Penzias actively engaged in communications work at Bell Labs. In 1972 he became the head of the Radio Physics Research Department. His duties also grew to include administrative responsibilities. In 1976, he was named director of the Radio Research Laboratory.

His research continued producing scientific landmarks. In 1973, Penzias, Wilson, and co-worker Keith Jefferts discovered the existence of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) in outer space, which provided even more information about the birth of the universe. In 1976, he became the first American to receive an honorary doctorate degree in from the Paris Observatory, a 309-year-old institution founded by King Louis XIV. Penzias eventually would receive more than 20 honorary degrees for the work he did during the 1970s. He was often cited for his groundbreaking research in inter-stellar chemistry—efforts that would result in the discovery of key chemicals existing among the stars. In this research, he employed his own techniques to observe millimeter-wave radio spectra emanating from space, enabling him and his associates to identify carbon monoxide and other simple molecules in the clouds present in the spaces between stars. Their findings included the nuclear composition tion of the constituent atoms of these molecules, which proved to be remnants of burned-out stars and the raw materials for new ones. The impact these discoveries had on the field of astronomy was enormous.

In 1979, in addition to his other functions, he became head of Bell Labs' Communications Sciences Research Division. Penzias would attribute his enormous success to Bell Labs, which gave him a great deal of freedom as a researcher.

Research Phase of Career Ended

In 1981, his career as a research scientist came to a sudden and unexpected end, thanks to a legal decision. AT&T and the U.S. Department of Justice settled a large antitrust suit by breaking up the Bell System. Because of the situation, Penzias was promoted to Vice-President of Research for the reorganized AT&T, a position he would hold for 15 years. As a result, his interest in astrophysics was soon replaced by an interest in the underlying principles of the creation and effective use of technology in society. This interest resulted in a book, Ideas and Information, published in 1989. Essentially, Penzias's message in his book was that computers made wonderful tools but awful role models; that is, if a worker did not want to get replaced by a machine, then they should not act like one.

In 1995, he became vice president and chief scientist of AT&T Bell Laboratories. A year later, in 1996, Bell Labs split from AT&T and became part of Lucent. Despite the merger, Penzias retained his position. In 1997, he retired from Bell after 37 years. After retirement, he continued working as a senior technology advisor and spokesperson for Lucent. In addition, he became involved with the burgeoning venture capital community in California's Silicon Valley, serving as an advisor and board member for several new small and mid-sized companies.

Gained Fame as Writer

Besides his research and business activities, Penzias was a prolific author during his career. He wrote more than 100 scientific papers, two books, two science fiction stories, and many technical and business articles. Because of his two books, he was inducted into the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Literary Hall of Fame. His first book, Ideas and Information, received wide acclaim and was translated into most major foreign languages. His second book, Digital Harmony: Business, Technology and Life After Paperwork, looked at how new technologies were changing how people worked and lived, and it described how machines could work well together and with their human users.

Innovated Management Strategies

Penzias became almost as well known for his unique research and development management strategies as he did for his scientific discoveries. He would design strategic uses for information systems, and he helped the business world better understand the applications and impact of emerging technologies.

During the managerial phase of his career, he developed new and innovative business strategies that were embraced throughout the corporate world. In his later years with Bell Labs, he helped restructure that company and, in the process, developed new business models that helped other companies restructure their own organizations to be more efficient and profitable. Penzias's managerial vision focused on integrating new technologies as well as freeing businesses from the traditional vertically integrated hierarchy. The vision also included increased product development and a stronger focus on customer satisfaction.

He also filed a number of patents including ones for a computer-based transportation system, a doubly-encrypted identity verification system, a participant tracking system for telephone conferences, and fraud prevention techniques for calling cards.

After retiring from the East Coast-based Bell Labs, Penzias relocated to California, offering his technical managerial knowledge to emerging technology-based companies in Silicon Valley. In 1997, he joined New Enterprise Associates, a venture-capital firm that specialized in early-stage investments in information technology and medical-and life-science companies.


Throughout his long and illustrious career, Penzias became affiliated with more than 25 organizations and academic institutions, including Harvard University, Princeton University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He was elected into many major organizations including memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the International Union of Radio Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the International Astronomical Union and fellowships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society. He served on the board of directors for Home Wireless Networks, Fibex Technologies, A.D. Little, Duracell, and Warpspeed Communications. His academic activities also included a visiting membership with the Astrophysical Sciences Department at Princeton University from 1972 to 1982. He also became vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, a national organization devoted to working for the political freedom of scientists in politically repressive countries.


"Arno Penzias," New Enterprise Associates, (February 10, 2003).

"Arno Penzias Profile," Arno Penzias' Homepage, (February 10, 2003).

"Arno Penzias-Venture Partner," Fast Company, (February 10, 2003).

Bishop, Gordon, "Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias Retires After 37 Years at Bell Labs," Lucent Technologies, (February 10, 2003).

E. Kim, Eugene, "Arno Penzias Gives Keynote," Dr. Dobb's Journal, (February 10, 2003).

Penzias, Arno, "Arno Penzias-Autobiography," Nobel e-Museum, (February 10, 2003).

"Penzias and Wilson's Discovery is One of the Century's Key Advances," Lucent Technologies, (February 10, 2003). □

About this article

Arno Allen Penzias

Updated About content Print Article