Design Con 2015

Bell Labs is back!

R. Colin Johnson

May 21, 2014

R. Colin JohnsonMay 21, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. — Bell Labs has been reborn, once again aiming to solve the industry's biggest challenges with focused basic research associated with application development. It's celebrating this turnaround on the anniversary of its discovery of the cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang while pioneering satellite communications applications.

To cement its commitment, Bell Labs is also announcing a new annual Bell Labs Prize for the three most forward-looking ideas regarding how the technology landscape will look 10 years in the future.

The AT&T Horn Antenna in Homdel, N.J., that enabled Bell Labs researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson to discover the cosmic background microwave radiation resulting from the Big Bang.
(Source: Bell Labs)
The AT&T Horn Antenna in Homdel, N.J., that enabled Bell Labs researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson to discover the cosmic background microwave radiation resulting from the Big Bang.
(Source: Bell Labs)

Bell Labs pioneered the electronics and communications industries, earning seven Nobel Prizes. Memorable Bell Labs inventions included the antenna that discovered cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the UNIX operating system, and the C and C++ programming languages. In 1996 AT&T spun-off Bell Labs into a new company that also took over its manufacturing business, called Lucent Technologies. Ten years later Alcatel Research and Innovation merged with Lucent, resulting in the present-day Alcatel-Lucent Bell Laboratories.

Bell Labs took on a more applications-oriented charter, and by 2008 only four basic research scientists in physics were reported left at its seminal Murray Hill, N.J., lab. To boot, that year Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs announced it was pulling out of material science, device physics, and semiconductor research, to focus on its core businesses of high-speed optics, networking, wireless, nanotechnology, and software.

Former Bell Labs researchers Robert Wilson (left) and Arno Penzias (right) discovered the cosmic background microwave radiation resulting from the Big Bang.
(Source: Bell Labs)
Former Bell Labs researchers Robert Wilson (left) and Arno Penzias (right) discovered the cosmic background microwave radiation resulting from the Big Bang.
(Source: Bell Labs)

"People like to say that Bell Labs has somehow changed its mission or lost its luster in some ways," Marcus Weldon, the current president of Bell Labs who took over in November of 2013 and who remains CTO of Alcatel-Lucent, told EE Times in an interview. "But in fact, the thing to realize is that Bell Labs has always been at its greatest when it solves big industry challenges -- of which the Big Bang is a classic example."

There are many examples that prove Weldon right. In fact, since the 1930s Bell Labs has been collecting Nobel prizes in solving big industry challenges. For instance, in 1965 AT&T Bell Labs researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson performed the work that resulted in a 1978 Nobel Prize for detecting the cosmic microwave background radiation resulting from the Big Bang.

But in fact, Penzias and Wilson were actually trying to solve a big industry challenge in communications. Fiber optics had not been invented yet, and radio channels were not able to keep up with the demand for more communications capacity. Consequently, they were investigating the possibility of satellite links as a way of boosting communications capacity, under NASA's passive Project Echo balloon satellite program, and in the process they detected the first and still most compelling evidence of the Big Bang -- cosmic microwave background radiation.

Wilson told EE Times:

    The discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation is one of those serendipitous discoveries which occur in science more often than many people think. Using a Bell Labs antenna, which had been built for satellite communications, but had properties which uniquely suited it to some radio astronomy measurements, Arno [Penzias] and I set out to look for a halo of radio emission around our Milky Way galaxy. We were completely surprised to find instead that the universe is filled with radio waves originating from the Big Bang. [As later verified by astrophysicists Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles, and David Wilkinson at Princeton University.]

    Fortunately, the Bell Labs culture allowed and indeed encouraged us to seek answers to these things we couldn't explain. I am amazed and pleased by how much the science of cosmology has changed and expanded since 1965. This has been fueled in no small part by the abundant information about the early universe which has been found deep in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Today, on the anniversary of discovering the Big Bang, and in the shadow of the original Bell Labs horn antenna in Holmdel, N.J., which Penzias and Wilson used to make their discovery, Bell Labs is hosting a Big Bang Anniversary celebration. But more importantly, Bell Labs brass is announcing a return to basic research and a reemphasis on Bell Labs' original primary directive -- that is, solving the world's biggest industry challenges.

To read more of this article and to leave a comment, go to "10-year plan: FutureX projects."

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