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October 6, 2007

Ralph Alpher — The man who saw through time


Alpher (above) was a physicist whose doctoral dissertation provided the basis for his two 1948 papers correctly predicting, respectively, the varying abundances of elements following a "Big Bang" origin for our universe and the resulting radio wave "echo" that should still be present.

In 1978 radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Laboratories shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work characterizing the accidentally detected hiss of background radiation picked up by their radio receiver in 1964.

At first, Penzias and Wilson thought the noise was the result of bird droppings on their radio telescope.

Only after they combined their findings with the work of a separate team at Princeton University which had proposed that there might be radio waves left over from the Big Bang — just as Alpher had proposed in 1948 — did Penzias and Wilson publish their paper, which mesmerized the scientific world.

Dr. Alpher's 1948 work was not cited.

Nevertheless, as time passed and Alpher's visionary papers became widely known, he came to be called by some "the forgotten father of the Big Bang."

Here is Patricia Sullivan's August 14, 2007 Washington Post obituary of Alpher, who died on August 12, 2007 at 86.

    Ralph A. Alpher; Physicist Published Theory of Big Bang


    Ralph Asher Alpher, 86, a physicist whose doctoral dissertation provided a feasible formula for the scientific idea of the big bang but whose work was forgotten until after other scientists won the Nobel Prize for the same idea, died of respiratory failure Aug. 12 at an acute care facility in Austin.

    Dr. Alpher was awarded the 2005 National Medal of Science last month for his 1948 prediction that, if the universe started with a big bang, as others had hypothesized, it would explain the varying abundances of elements in the universe. Months later, he and two colleagues figured out that a big bang would have released an "echo" that should still be present in today's universe as radio waves.

    "It had vast implications, but unfortunately it got very little attention," said Vera C. Rubin of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution. "It's a very complicated story. He and Bob Herman did something very early and very brilliant. There's really no other word for it. They were kind of forgotten."

    When Dr. Alpher published his dissertation, the scientific establishment hadn't fully accepted the big-bang hypothesis. When he published further theories that advanced his ideas, astronomers were unwilling to search for an echo of an event that they were not convinced had happened.

    Then, in 1964, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Telephone Laboratories accidentally detected a constant hiss when they pointed their radio receiver into space. About the same time, a separate Princeton University team proposed that there might be radio waves left over from the big bang, just as Dr. Alpher had proposed. Penzias and Wilson put the two ideas together, and their paper mesmerized the scientific world.

    But Dr. Alpher's work was nowhere cited.

    "Was I hurt? Yes! How the hell did they think I'd feel?" he told Joseph D'Agnese in a July 1999 article in Discover magazine. "I was miffed at the time that they'd never even invited us down to see the damned radio telescope. It was silly to be annoyed, but I was."

    For the next decade, Dr. Alpher and colleague Robert Herman wrote letters attempting to correct the record, with spotty success. But in 1978, Penzias and Wilson shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation.

    Penzias credited Dr. Alpher and his colleagues in his Nobel laureate speech, but the stress of fighting for credit contributed to a heart attack Dr. Alpher suffered a month later.

    A native Washingtonian, Dr. Alpher graduated from Roosevelt High School as a 16-year-old prodigy. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered him a full scholarship. But after he disclosed that he was Jewish, the scholarship was withdrawn without explanation.

    He enrolled in night classes at George Washington University and worked by day at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory and later at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on torpedo exploder devices and guided missiles. He graduated from GWU in 1943 and received a master's degree in physics there two years later and his doctorate in physics in 1948.

    His thesis adviser, a brilliant and quirky Soviet defector named George Gamow, suggested that Dr. Alpher look at the beginning of time. The big bang, which had been proposed about 25 years earlier, was controversial and not widely accepted. But if a single atom had exploded and thrown out the matter that formed the universe, some physical evidence might remain, the scientists figured, and they should be able to calculate it.

    His doctoral thesis said this: After the explosion, what remained would be radiation and other matter, which Dr. Alpher dubbed ylem. This cloud of neutrons decayed and formed protons, electrons and neutrinos. As the universe cooled, the remaining neutrons, protons and electrons combined to form all the chemical elements of which the physical world is composed. His calculations found 10 atoms of hydrogen for every one atom of helium, exactly the ratio observed by astronomers looking at the stars.

    The idea was profound and exciting. But his thesis adviser had another twist to offer; he wanted to add renowned physicist Hans Bethe's name to the list of authors as a scientific pun: Alpher, Bethe and Gamow would be the alpha, beta and gamma of science. Bethe, who had nothing to do with the research, gamely agreed.

    Word spread that the young Silver Spring resident had made a major scientific breakthrough. His thesis defense drew 300 spectators to GWU's auditorium, including prominent scientists and the press. Asked how long the whole process of primordial nucleosynthesis had taken, Dr. Alpher said about 300 seconds.

    The next day, a six-paragraph article in The Washington Post was headlined: "World Began in 5 Minutes, New Theory." A Herblock cartoon showed an evil-looking atom bomb reading the headline, scratching its chin and pondering, "Five Minutes, Eh?"

    Within months, Dr. Alpher next published, with Herman, a paper that said radiation from the big bang should still be in the universe, cooled to a temperature of 5 degrees Kelvin (about 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). But astronomers, skeptical of the big-bang theory in general, did not believe it could be measured and would not pursue it.

    Stymied by the lack of enthusiasm, Dr. Alpher left Johns Hopkins in 1955 to join General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y. He joined the faculty at Union College in Schenectady in 1986. He retired in 2004.

    Eventually, he did receive recognition for his achievements: the 1975 Magellanic Premium from the American Philosophical Society, the John Price Wetherill Medal from the Franklin Institute and the National Academy of Sciences' 1993 Henry Draper Medal. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    His wife of 66 years, Louise Simons Alpher, died in 2004.

    Survivors include two children, Victor Alpher of Austin and Harriet Lebetkin of Danbury, Conn.; and two grandchildren.


Here is John Noble Wilford's August 18, 2007 New York Times obituary.

    Ralph Alpher, 86, Expert in Work on the Big Bang, Dies


    Ralph Alpher, a physicist whose early calculations and theoretical predictions supported the Big Bang concept for the origin of the universe, though his role was largely overlooked as later discoveries proved him right, died last Sunday in Austin, Tex. He was 86.

    His death was announced by Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where he was a professor emeritus. The announcement said he had been living in Austin and been in failing health since breaking his hip in February.

    Only last month, Dr. Alpher was awarded the National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony where he was cited for “his unprecedented work” on the origin of cosmic particles, “for his prediction that universe expansion leaves behind background radiation and for providing the model for the Big Bang theory.”

    It was the science establishment’s last effort to make amends to a “forgotten father of the Big Bang” for the failure to recognize fully and earlier Dr. Alpher’s role in the theory’s foundations. He was unable to accept the award in person.

    When he was a graduate student at George Washington University in the 1940s, some scientists had for about two decades hypothesized that the universe had begun in an explosion of condensed matter and had been expanding ever since. But some still favored the steady-state theory, which held that the universe had always existed in more or less its current state.

    In 1948, Dr. Alpher published two papers based on research for his doctoral dissertation. The first was written with his adviser, George Gamow, a Russian-born physicist with a puckish turn of mind who obtained permission to include as a co-author Hans Bethe, an authority on the origin of cosmic elements. The authorship by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow was a scientific pun on the first letters of the Greek alphabet, which seemed appropriate for a paper on cosmic genesis.

    The paper reported Dr. Alpher’s calculations on how, as the initial universe cooled, the remaining particles combined to form all the chemical elements in the world. This elemental radiation and matter he dubbed ylem, for the Greek term defining the chaos out of which the world was born.

    The research also offered an explanation for the varying abundances of the known elements. It yielded the estimate that there should be 10 atoms of hydrogen for every one atom of helium in the universe, as astronomers have observed.

    Months later, Dr. Alpher collaborated with Robert Herman of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University on a paper predicting that the explosive moment of creation would have released radiation that should still be echoing through space as radio waves. Astronomers, perhaps thinking it impossible to detect any residual radiation or still doubting the Big Bang theory, did not bother to search.

    Then, in 1964, the radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey accidentally detected the hiss of background radiation. Astrophysicists at Princeton University proposed that this was the radio echo from the Big Bang, which they had independently predicted and been looking for.

    Dr. Alpher and Dr. Herman had been vindicated, except that no one involved in the discovery so much as tipped a hat in their direction. Belatedly, scientists have acknowledged the slight.

    In his authoritative 1977 book, “The First Three Minutes,” Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate physicist at the University of Texas, described Dr. Alpher’s research as “the first thoroughly modern analysis of the early history of the universe.”

    Dr. Weinberg said in an e-mail message that the calculations by Dr. Alpher and Dr. Herman “had for the first time given an idea of the temperature of radiation left over from the early universe.” But, he added, “what is strange is that Alpher and Herman did not push radio astronomers to look for this radiation.”

    While Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson later received Nobel Prizes, Dr. Alpher and Dr. Herman soon dropped out of cosmology and were later seldom credited for their contribution. Dr. Alpher joined the General Electric Research and Development Center in Schenectady in 1955 and became a research professor of physics at Union College in 1986, retiring in 2004.

    Ralph Asher Alpher was born in Washington. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered him a full scholarship, but after he disclosed that he was Jewish, he said, the scholarship was withdrawn without explanation. Instead, he attended George Washington University at nights while working at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington and at the Johns Hopkins physics laboratory.

    Dr. Alpher is survived by a son, Victor, of Austin; a daughter, Harriet Lebetkin of Danbury, Conn.; and two granddaughters. His wife, the former Louise Simons, died in 2004.

    In a 1999 article in Discover magazine, Dr. Alpher spoke of the ache of being the forgotten man of Big Bang science.

    “Was I hurt?” he said. “Yes! How the hell did they think I’d feel? I was miffed at the time that they’d never even invited us down to see the damned radiotelescope. It was silly to be annoyed, but I was.”

October 6, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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