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How Ewen and Purcell discovered the 21-cm interstellar hydrogen line

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1 Author(s)
Stephan, K.D. ; Dept. of Electr. & Comput. Eng., Massachusetts Univ., Amherst, MA

The story of how Harold Irving Ewen and Edward Mills Purcell detected the first spectral line ever observed in radio astronomy, in 1951, has been told for general audiences by Robert Buderi (1996). The present article has a different purpose. The technical roots of Ewen and Purcell's achievement reveal much about the way science often depends upon “borrowed” technologies, which were not developed with the needs of science in mind. The design and construction of the equipment is described in detail. As Ewen's photographs, records, and recollections show, he and Purcell had access to an unusual combination of scientific knowledge, engineering know-how, critical hardware, and technical assistance at Harvard, in 1950 and 1951. This combination gave them a competitive edge over similar research groups in Holland and Australia, who were also striving to detect the hydrogen line, and who succeeded only weeks after the Harvard researchers did. The story also shows that Ewen and Purcell did their groundbreaking scientific work in the “small-science” style that prevailed before World War II, while receiving substantial indirect help from one of the first big-science projects at Harvard

Published in:

Antennas and Propagation Magazine, IEEE  (Volume:41 ,  Issue: 1 )

Date of Publication:

Feb 1999

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