Keep An Open Door

During my high school years, the idea entered my head to build a radio telescope.  The entire field of radio astronomy dated only from the 1930s, which meant that it was a mere few decades older than I was, and it beckoned with the enticement of the new.   I’d already been carried away by the discovery of quasars, which had been made but a few years earlier, and the whole idea of the invisible radio universe was far more mysterious, alluring than the familiar optical universe, which had been studied since the time of the ancients.  Radio astronomy was the fertile territory for amateurs.   A little too fertile.  As a brash youngster I had no idea of what I was getting myself and a group of friends into, and several years of work didn’t produce much more than a big wooden antenna covered with chicken wire.   The receiver was proving particularly troublesome and a more experienced scientist advised me to get a hold of a device known as a lock-in amplifier.  One thing led to another and, not knowing the extent of my own ignorance, I walked brazenly into the physics department at Princeton University and into the laboratory of David Wilkinson.

Wilkinson is widely remembered as the man who narrowly missed discovering the cosmic microwave background radiation—the heat left over from the big bang itself—when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Labs accidently stumbled on it.  Probably no one had as much influence on the subsequent development of cosmic microwave background research as he did (WMAP, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe satellite, is named in his honor) but I was completely oblivious to his reputation.  When I found him that day in his laboratory he was at work on a balloon-borne experiment to measure the background radiation and, without a blush, I asked if he had a lock-in amplifier that I could borrow for a radio telescope.  No spares were lying around but he indulged me in conversation for a few minutes.   Watching him at work, it probably occurred to me than I could learn more from him that from our haphazard attempts to build a telescope.  “This looks really interesting,” I said.  “Would you mind if I came by once in a while to watch what you are doing?”

Wilkinson peered at me sternly:  “Why don’t you come by on a regular basis and make yourself useful?”

That moment was the beginning of my career.  I began to cut classes at Lawrence High School to help build a little temperature-control circuit for the balloon; I read about radio astronomy and talked to the graduate students about their research.  Nothing I did for Wilkinson was important for his experiment but what I learned in those afternoons at the Princeton physics department changed my life.  Decades later, Jim Peebles, one of Wilkinson’s closest collaborators, told me that such episodes were characteristic of Wilkinson.  I also learned that Dave had a number of rules concerning teaching and research.  As recorded by his student Andrew Lange:

  • Work on important problem– better to “fail” at something important than “succeed” at something unimportant.
  • Make it look fun and easy– the students won’t know any better till it’s too late to turn back.
  • Give the students lots of room (rope?)– all of the survivors will be great.
  • Keep an eye out for new technology– an important problem + great people + new technology = success.
  • Keep it simple– you’ll be able to move on to the next attempt more quickly.
  • Be gracious– nurture everyone’s potential.
  • The delivery matters– communication is everything.

From the perspective of a man who is now closer to retirement than high school, I see in them a dash of Princeton’s “marine training” philosophy and outlook toward science in general:  There are important problems (what Princeton does) and unimportant problems (what Princeton doesn’t do).   Big Science in general partakes of this attitude, that the community knows best, but a strong case can be made for doing science for personal edification—whether the Party recognizes it or not.  Nevertheless,  in “nurturing everyone’s potential,” Wilkinson followed his own advice and I am eternally grateful to him.  My wish is that every scientist and educational institution would display the same open-door policy that he did to that youngster those distant years ago, and the same grace.

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