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Luck

From one perspective, Robert Henry Dicke was a pretty unlucky physicist. He came close to discovering the cosmic microwave background…By Michael Segal

From one perspective, Robert Henry Dicke was a pretty unlucky physicist. He came close to discovering the cosmic microwave background radiation, only to be upstaged by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who stumbled on it while listening for something else. Dicke also came close to developing the laser, filing a key patent two years before Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, but then not developing his ideas further.

There is another perspective, though, from which Dicke’s career was very lucky indeed. He worked at MIT’s rad lab, and at Princeton University. He was involved in some of the century’s most important scientific developments, and made important contributions, including developing a ubiquitous instrument called the lock-in amplifier.

In interviews with Dicke, the unlucky narrative is absent. Dicke explains that attending the doctoral program at the University of Rochester was “a bit of blind luck,” and even getting into physics itself was a fortunate accident (he was going to study electrical engineering before deciding that the courses looked too boring). He also points out that his work was instrumental to interpreting Penzias and Wilson’s data: “While they discovered something, we discovered the nature of this something.”

The British statistician and mathematician David Hand has described luck as chance with a human face, the randomness of the real world refracted through our imagined version of how the world should behave. Maybe the right move here is to discount the idea of luck altogether. But can we? After Wilson and Penzias won the Nobel for their work, Dicke made this comment: “One would think that pure serendipity shouldn’t be so strongly rewarded, but from the standpoint of the Nobel Prize committee, what else could they do.”

Welcome to “Luck.”

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