College was quite a challenge. I went to Swarthmore, warned by my parents that I'd been a big fish in a little pond, and I would have to study very hard to win again. I did, and it worked. I was keenly aware that they were paying for me to go, and I was determined to get every bit out of it. From there it was off to Berkeley for graduate school. That was a much bigger pond, and a real shock. Swarthmore was a little school, only 1,200 people in a small town. Berkeley was huge and at least the physics students weren't very social. They'd come in to class and sit down with their books and read.
The psychology students went to class and planned their adventures and their parties. After a couple of years of taking classes and going to the library, I was fairly tired of school. Then came my lucky break. It was time to find a research topic and a research professor, and I met some wonderful mentors. Paul Richards was my thesis advisor, and in his laboratories I worked on designs for instruments to measure the cosmic microwave radiation. Mike Werner had just received his PhD and was working in Charles Townes's group, and they taught me a lot too. It was 1970, just five years after the radiation had been found, and the news from a rocket experiment said that the Big Bang theory wasn't right. The radiation was 50 times too bright. Worse yet, a mountaintop experiment said that there was a spectrum line in the cosmic background radiation, a frequency where the radiation was much brighter than at nearby frequencies. The Big Bang couldn't do that, so maybe the radiation wasn't cosmic after all. We ought to check.
It took us a long time. First, we built a new instrument to take to White Mountain in California. It was called a Fabry Perot interferometer and it was really tricky, especially for our first effort. I worked with Mike Werner on this project. We helicoptered ourselves and the apparatus up the mountain in the winter and tried to breathe. At first our fingers and tongues were blue from lack of oxygen, but after a few days the headaches went away and our color came back and we could think a little again. After two trips we concluded there was nothing wrong with the Big Bang radiation that we could see. Alas, our ability to measure the cosmic radiation was limited by the air overhead, which emits its own radiation.
Our next adventure was to Palestine, Texas, a small town south of Dallas where scientific balloons are launched. Our new apparatus hung by a thousand-foot cord from a huge polyethylene bag, as big as a football field. It would do a better job than we could manage from the mountain, because it would go above 99.5% of the air. This new project took until 1973 to get ready. We got impatient. More tests would take a long time, and they wouldn't be very realistic. Maybe the apparatus would work. We (my fellow graduate student David Woody and I) drove it to Texas on a yellow University truck, across the Arizona and New Mexican deserts to the lush greenery of watermelon fields of East Texas. We launched it, or I should say a lot of people launched it. The crew to handle these huge things is very professional and they have the most amazing equipment. Tiny Tim, a converted Earth mover, dangles the payload from his huge jaws 20 feet in the air, while the balloon bag rises overhead, and then races across the field with it until the cable pulls tight and the balloon lifts our work into the sky.
Well, it didn't work. It didn't work for three different reasons, which we found out after we got back. That night was awful. Three years of workwent up, up, and away, and there wasn't a thing we could do about it. We sat in the control room, thinking about what to do to recover, and sending computer commands, but nothing helped. It was a defining moment. I decided that my Zen needed revision. I couldn't, I wouldn't ever, be so impatient. I would test everything. This time, Paul let me finish my thesis on the basis of the previous work, and in January 19741 left California for a new life. David rebuilt the apparatus and flew it again three times after I left, and it worked twice. The measurements said the radiation had just the right spectrum to match the predictions, and the Big Bang theory was still OK.
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