Innovators with “game-changing and impactful” ideas in “the field of information and communications” have until 15 July 2014 to enter a new competition that will award the first-place winner $100,000 and a contract providing the “unique opportunity to work with world renowned Bell Labs to further explore” the idea, according to Bell Labs (Alcatel-Lucent’s research arm), the contest’s sponsor. The second- and third-place winners will get smaller sums but the same opportunity.

The Bell Labs Prize, announced today, is part of a 50th anniversary celebration of Arno Penzias and Robert A. Wilson's Nobel prize-winning discovery of the cosmic microwave background, which helped confirm the Big Bang theory and is considered one of the signal scientific achievements of the middle of the last century. Penzias and Wilson were employees of the fabled research establishment, which was supported then by profits from the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (now AT&T Corporation), at the time the nation’s sole telephone company, and ranked among the world’s preeminent centers of innovation. In addition to such world-changing advances as the transistor, Bell Labs produced six other Nobel prizes, the most of any industrial lab. Its “dominance … faded after 1984, when the courts found that AT&T was a monopoly and mandated that the company divest itself of its local telephone operations,” according to the IEEE Global History Network.

Penzias and Wilson were working to eliminate interference from the ultrasensitive Holmdel Horn Antenna, which was built for satellite communications, when they discerned mysterious signals that would not go away even after many adjustments. They even removed nearby birds’ nests.

The radiation, they eventually determined, did not originate in our galaxy. Chance then led them to learn that researchers at Princeton University, about 30 miles away, had theorized radiation residue from the Big Bang but had no way to detect it. Penzias and Wilson’s data meshed perfectly with the Princeton group’s predictions.

“When we first heard that inexplicable ‘hum,’ we didn’t understand its significance, and we never dreamed it would be connected to the origins of the universe. It wasn’t until we exhausted every possible explanation for the sound’s origin that we realized we had stumbled upon something big,” Penzias recalled in a statement.

“We’ve often said that there was no ‘a-ha’ moment – we were simply trying to explain something that we didn’t understand. It’s inspiring to know the implications of one’s research, and that you form a part of a vast scientific legacy,” Wilson added.

“I think it is fitting that today, as we honor and celebrate this incredible, Nobel Prize-winning achievement by Arno and Bob, we are launching a program intended to inspire world-changing discoveries and innovations by young researchers that may one day walk in their footsteps. The Bell Labs Prize is intended to recognize innovators with the ability and vision to challenge the common assumptions, and find ways to revolutionize the way we live, work, communicate, collaborate and connect with each other and our digital world,” said Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and chief technology officer of Alcatel-Lucent, in the statement.

The new prize is intended to help “reignite innovation at Bell Labs and solidify Bell Labs’ role as the world’s pre-eminent research organization in the field of communication networking,” according to a statement by Alcatel Lucent, Bell Labs’ current owner. Another part of that effort is a planned expansion; Alcatel-Lucent also announced the opening of a new Bell Labs office near Tel Aviv, Israel.

Any attempt to restore Bell Labs to its former greatness would be welcome in this era of corporate-research downsizing. It would also be ambitious. When it was first created in 1924, Bell Labs had 3600 employees. According to Wikipedia, Bell Labs once employed more than 11,000 people at its Naperville-Lisle location alone, one of many locations nationwide. Today, a Bell Labs spokesperson tells Science Careers, Bell Labs has about 700 employees.

Those who enter ideas in the contest “will always retain ownership of IP [intellectual property] the applicant creates and will grant rights to Alcatel Lucent. For IP created jointly, the applicant and ALU [Alcatel Lucent] will own the IP jointly, and each will grant certain rights to the other such as the right to license,” Bell Labs spokesperson Jacqueline Meyler tells Science Careers by e-mail.

The celebration also includes a “Big Bang Bash” with Penzias and Wilson in attendance near the historic antenna, in New Jersey's Holmdel Township, that they used in their research.

Information about the contest and how to enter is here.

 

Lead image courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400125