2007: An Unsung Cosmology Hero Dies

Ralph Alpher conducted pioneering research regarding the Big Bang, but ended up languishing in semi-obscurity.

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A Hubble telescope image of the cosmos. Alpher figured out the ratio of elements in the universe relative to each other.
A Hubble telescope image of the cosmos. Alpher figured out the ratio of elements in the universe relative to each other.Credit: AP

On August 12, 2007, physicist Ralph Asher Alpher died, at the age of 86. A pioneer in the field of cosmology – the study of the origins of the universe – Alpher did the calculations that allowed him to offer theories about two essential developments following the Big Bang. When other physicists later provided experimental proof for the theories, they won the Nobel Prize, while Alpher languished in semi-obscurity, a source of great frustration for him.

Ralph Asher Alpher was born on February 3, 1921, in Washington D.C. He was the youngest of the four children of Samuel Alpher, a building contractor, and Rose Maleson Alpher, who had immigrated from Russia and Latvia, respectively.

Ralph graduated high school at the age of 16, and was offered a full scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following his acceptance, Alpher had a lengthy interview with an MIT alumnus, who kept returning to the subject of his religious beliefs. Alpher told him that he was Jewish. Shortly afterward, the scholarship offer was rescinded, without explanation, and Alpher always believed that it was due to his religious identity.

"My brother had told me not to get my hopes up," he later recalled, "and he was damn right. It was a searing experience. He said it was unrealistic to think that a Jew could go anywhere back then.”

In the end, Alpher attended George Washington University, in his hometown, studying at night, while working fulltime during the day. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees there, the latter in 1948. His day jobs included work during World War II for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, where he helped develop technology to protect ships from magnetic mines and to detect submarines from the air.

Alpher’s doctoral adviser at GWU was George Gamow, a world-renowned physicist who had defected from the Soviet Union, and who was studying the origin of galaxies. The idea that the universe had been created by a single event – what Fred Hoyle later dubbed the “Big Bang” – had been proposed in 1927 by physicist Georges Lemaitre, who famously spoke of the occurrence of a “day without a yesterday.”

In the work that formed the basis for his Ph.D. thesis, Alpher postulated that all the elements in creation came into existence in the critical moments after the Big Bang, and that their abundance in the universe would be proportional to their atomic weight. This would explain why the simplest elements, hydrogen and helium, are so abundant, while heavier elements, such as gold and silver, are relatively rare.

Alpher and Gamow predicted, for example, that hydrogen would exist in a proportion of 10:1 to helium, a relationship that was borne out by experimental research by astronomers. Even though later research showed that Alpher’s theory did not explain the creation – or abundance -- of all elements, it was still of groundbreaking significance, and its presentation, in the form of Alpher’s defense of his doctoral thesis, was covered by the press.

Ralph AlpherCredit: AIP

When the work was later published in a journal article, Gamow, who was known for his sense of humor, thought it would be entertaining to ask the well-known physicist Hans Bethe, to sign on as co-author. That way, the article, which appeared in The Physical Review in April 1948, would boast the authorship of “Alpher, Bethe and Gamow,” a pun on the first three letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha, beta and gamma.

Funny, perhaps, but Bethe had not been involved at all in the research, and the inclusion of his name together with that of Alpher’s doctoral adviser, Gamow, meant that the person who had actually conducted most of this pioneering research went largely forgotten.

It was also in 1948 that Alpher co-wrote a paper with his colleague Ralph Herman on the question of the residual radiation that would have remained after the Big Bang. If the Big Bang thesis, which was still not widely accepted, was correct, they suggested, as the universe expanded from its initial infinitesimally small point, the energy of the blast would have left an echo, which should be measurable not as visible light, but as microwaves. The microwaves, they suggested, should be detectable by radio telescopes. As it turned out, only 1 percent of the universe’s photons are visible as light, whereas this cosmic background radiation constitutes 99 percent of photons.

Although Alpher and Herman urged their experimental-physicist colleagues to search for proof of this radiation, their research went largely ignored. And it was largely by chance that, in 1964, two researchers at Bell Laboratories, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, turned a radio receiver they were trying to calibrate to zero toward the open skies. When they picked up noise on the receiver, they initially assumed it was caused by the “white dielectric material” that nesting pigeons had deposited on their antenna. But cleaning the droppings did not eliminate the noise, and when Penzias and Wilson heard about research similar to that of Alpher and Herman’s done by colleagues at nearby Princeton University, suggesting the existence of residual radiation from the origins of the universe, they made the intellectual leap to proposing that’s what they were picking up with their radio.

The publication in 1965 by Penzias and Wilson of their research made international headlines – and because they were unfamiliar with the work of Alpher and Herman, they did not mention it. Later, when Alpher was asked if he was offended at not being mentioned by the two Bell researchers in their report, he responded with candor: "Was I hurt? 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 radio telescope. It was silly to be annoyed, but I was."

In 1978, when he and Wilson won the Nobel Prize, Penzias used his Nobel lecture to discuss the evolution of the Big Bang model, and gave generous credit to Alpher for his work. But by then, Alpher had long felt that he was an unsung hero.

In 1955, Alpher had begun working for General Electric’s Research and Development Center, in Niskayuna, New York, where he was involved in questions related to vehicle reentry into the atmosphere from outer space. Starting in 1987, he also became a research professor of physics and astronomy at nearby Union College, in Schenectady, until his retirement, in 2004.

On July 27, 2007, Alpher was awarded with the National Medal of Science. His citation for that prize notes in part that he was being honored for “his unprecedented work in the areas of nucleosynthesis, for the prediction that universe expansion leaves behind background radiation, and for providing the model for the Big Bang theory.” By then, Alpher was sick and failing, and his son, Victor, went to the White House to pick up the medal from President George W. Bush.

A little more than two weeks later, Ralph Alpher died, in Austin, Texas, where Victor still lives.

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