Neville J Woolf Conversations with Dicke

Nick Woolf is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He was a postdoc in the Princeton University Department of Astrophysical Sciences from 1962 to 1965. His current research interest is astrobiology.

I have these memories that tell me that I cost Bob Dicke the Nobel Prize.

One evening in the attic of Palmer, I think in early 1964, Bob turned to me and asked me whether there was any way to know the amount of the background radiation. He had already turned Roll and Wilkinson onto the topic, but I believe they had only just started.

I said "Well, there were your own measurements in 1946." He grunted. And I said, "and then there are the interstellar molecules."

He didn't say a word. "Oh," I thought, "I must have said something stupid" and I shut up. If I had said more, about the searches for excitation in iron and CN and the other stuff, I am sure he would have picked up on it and he would have been ahead of Penzias and Wilson - but that is the world of Might Have Been.

I also mentioned the molecules to George Field during this time, or slightly earlier, and George said something about that he thought they were excited by collisions. Later I asked him, and he said that he had tried a calculation around that time, but later realized that it had been wrong.

Finally, when I was at the Institute for Space Studies in 1965, Bob Dicke wanted Bill Hoffman and me to fly a balloon to detect the background radiation. Well, I knew that we were far from that level of precision, though in a couple of years later Bill did detect the 100-^m radiation from the galactic center. So I hurriedly diverted Bob to the molecules. And in the hurry of the moment I left him with a reference to McKellar's paper before he had measured the excited state. So Bob got Pat Thaddeus into the picture, and Thaddeus tracked down the literature - but this was all after Penzias and Wilson (1965a) had observed the background.

Anyway, once Bob knew of the excitation he visited me at the institute, and asked who was working on CN at that time. "Guido Munch" I said. "Call him, and ask if there is anything new," said Bob, so I picked up the phone and called Guido. I asked about the cyanogen, and Guido said "Are you working with George Field?" "No, why?" "Well George called me yesterday about this."

Later I found that at almost the same time Shklovsky gave a colloquium in Moscow on the same topic.

So that is the story of how one postdoc's hesitation lost Bob the Nobel Prize. And I believe it would be worth telling the tale, so that some other young person next time is not as hesitant as I was.

And of course, there it is in Herzberg's book about the temperature being 3 K, "but this number has no physical significance whatever" ... I quote from memory.

And like Gamow I have now moved into astrobiology.

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