Science history slips away: Ralph Alpher and Big Bang

Looking for something else in an old newspaper, I came across a small obituary for Ralph Alpher. Alpher died August 12, 2007, in Austin, Texas, at the home of his son, Dr. Victor S. Alpher.

Ralph Alpher, physicist who co-hypothesized the Big Bang

Ralph Alpher, physicist who co-hypothesized the Big Bang

Ralph Alpher gave us the Big Bang. We let him slip away, almost unnoticed. Odds are you don’t recall ever hearing of Alpher. Here’s your mnemonic: The alphabet paper.

In 1948, as a graduate student under George Gamow at the George Washington University, Alpher and Robert Herman of Johns Hopkins laid the groundwork for what would become Big Bang theory, calculating how matter could arise in the Universe. Gamow, exhibiting the sense of humor for which physicists are famous, listed the authors of the paper as Alpher, Bethe, Gamow and Herman — a play on the Greek alphabet’s first three letters (alpha, beta, gamma), and a joke invoking the name of the great physicist Hans Bethe. Bethe liked the joke, consulted on the paper, and the theory of Big Bang was published.

Ralph Alpher, in Florida, 2006; Alpher home page

The name “Big Bang” was applied a few years later; Sir Frederick Hoyle and his colleagues favored a “steady state” universe, and at the time both hypotheses could accurately predict most of what was observed, and neither could be disproven. Hoyle, hoping to poke ridicule at the competing hypothesis, belittled it as “a big bang.” The name stuck. The name misleads the unwary; the theory posits a rapid expansion at the beginning of the universe and time, but not an explosion, per se.

Alpher wrote the mathematical model; the model predicted Big Bang, and specifically, it predicted the cosmic background radiation that would have been left over; it was this background radiation, the “echo” of Big Bang, that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson stumbled across in 1965. Robert H. Dicke had invested several years in trying to discover this signature, and had to explain to Penzias and Wilson what they had found. Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize for their discovery; Dicke, Alpher, Herman and Gamow, did not get Nobel Prizes. This is generally regarded as one of the great miscarriages of justice in Nobel Prize awards, not that Penzias and Wilson did not deserve an award, but that the chief theorists and the man who unveiled the discovery were overlooked.

This is another story of rejection leading to great discovery; it is also a rather sad story of a momentous achievement, mostly overlooked through the years.

Alpher was the son of Jewish émigrés from the Russian pogroms. His high school achievements merited a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1937. MIT had a rule at the time that scholarship recipients could not work outside the school. Alpher assisted his father in building houses in the Washington, D.C. area; the family had little money, and Alpher would be unable to pay room and board without working. Discussions with MIT broke down — the offer of a scholarship was withdrawn, according to most accounts when MIT discovered he was a Jew. As so many great people of the post World War II era, he enrolled at the George Washington University.

At GWU, Alpher found Gamow as a mentor, and much of the rest is history.

The New York Times:

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.

The Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper, or αβγ paper, as explained by the American Institute of Physics:

When Alpher and Gamow prepared a paper on the subject, Gamow mischievously added the name of the noted nuclear physicist Hans Bethe to the list of authors so it would be called the “Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper,” mimicking the “alpha-beta-gamma” of the first letters of the Greek alphabet. Unknown to Gamow, Bethe was a reviewer for the journal to which Gamow submitted the article. Bethe took it in good humor, later explaining, “I felt at the time that it was rather a nice joke, and that the paper had a chance of being correct, so that I did not mind my name being added to it.” Gamow also urged Herman to change his name to Delter to match delta, the next letter in the Greek alphabet. Despite Herman’s refusal, in a paper in a major scientific journal Gamow referred to “the neutron-capture theory…developed by Alpher, Bethe, Gamow and Delter.” Not least among his notable characteristics was his sense of humor.

Alpher continued in this work for a time, but joined General Electric’s labs in the 1950s. When he retired from GE, in 1986 he joined the faculty at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and taught there until 2004.

Alpher was largely overlooked for awards even while his theory was big news in astronomy and physics for the last 40 years of the 20th century. I regret that I was wholly unaware he was in Austin; how many other great contributors to science and history live among us, unrecognized, uncelebrated, and their stories unrecorded?

Alpher, Herman and Gamow - and the famous Cointreau bottle

Photo caption from AIP: A 1949 composite picture with Robert Herman on the left, Ralph Alpher on the right, and George Gamow in the center, as the genie coming out of the bottle of “Ylem,” the initial cosmic mixture of protons, neutrons, and electrons from which the elements supposedly were formed. [The Cointreau bottle from which the three drank a toast upon the acceptance of the paper, is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.]

Alpher was an Eagle Scout. I wonder whether anyone has a history of his time in Scouting?

While the Nobel Prize eluded Alpher, he collected a host of other prestigious awards and honors. Earlier this year, President Bush announced that Alpher had been awarded the National Medal of Science, which is administered by the National Science Foundation and is the highest honor for science.

. . . [T]he citation reads in part:

“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.”

Note from George Gamow, on confirmation of Big Bang Gamow’s humor again on display — an undated note from Gamow upon the confirmation of the Big Bang, with a punny reference to Steady State backer Sir Frederick Hoyle. Image from the American Institute for Physics.

Online sources for Ralph Alpher:


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16 Responses to Science history slips away: Ralph Alpher and Big Bang

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Local to Dallas — you’re in Austin, right?


  2. Anyone who would like a reprint, contact me through, and I will send one–Ed, you are local, correct?


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    First, congratulations! Great to hear about the paper.

    Second, thanks for coming back to let us know.


  4. One of the greatest surprises in the paper referred to in Physics in Perspective is that George A. Gamow opposed the concept of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation–completely–for several years. He allowed credit to be given to him for it, through silence (not a rare position). When attempting to publish a “mea culpa” paper in the PNAS in 1968, he approved the galleys before receiving final comments on the draft from Alpher and Herman. He pleaded for months for calculations and graphs from Alpher by mail, yet did this disservice to his former student and colleague Herman. The alpha, beta, gamma paper was published 6 weeks before Alpher defended his dissertation, again, over Ralph Alpher’s virulent objections! It is more interesting history, and hopefully an article will be forthcoming soon from me on these interesting twists-as I have uncovered more primary sources pertinent to the subject.


  5. I, Victor S. Alpher (Ralph A. Alpher’s son) have published a new peer-reviewed (in History of Physics) article on the history of the prediction of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, which appears in the journal Physics in Perspective, September, 2012, Vol. 14, pp. 300-334. There is a considerable amount of previously unpublished material contained in the article, titled “Ralph A. Alpher, Robert C. Herman, and the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.” I have published other papers (see in such journals as Radiations, and The Submarine Review about other matters. This article hones in on Alpher’s continued efforts, through the early 1960s, to get the CMBR measured. He never gave up on this quest, even while proposing research to be done in cooperation with the U.S. government and the General Electric Company from satellites. Some of this primary material was in Ralph A. Alpher’s personal papers, currently archived by Victor S. Alpher, Ph.D., Executor of his Estate.


  6. […] work, perhaps?  Did Edwin Hubble have a fundamental publication we can point to?  How about Alpher, Herman and Gamow and Big […]


  7. […] “Science history slips away:  Ralph Alpher and Big Bang” […]


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Alas, the policy of the Nobel committees is to make no posthumous awards. The Nobel committees often seem to miss the big stuff, though. Einstein was never recognized for his work on gravity or relativity (he won for the photoelectric effect). Go figure.

    So a great scientist whose work changes history and does not win the Nobel, is in very good company.

    Let’s make it a policy to commemorate Ralph Alpher’s work wherever and whenever possible. It’s a good, inspiring story.


  9. It is not too late for the Nobel folks to get out of the bathtub. My Dad’s 2005 National Medal of Science was awarded in July 2007. So, why not? I have heard his intellectual achievements in cosmology compared to the big brass (Nobel Laureates) so many times. Or, on the other hand, perhaps the Nobel is simply overestimated! He certainly was needled enough times during his career to make it almost necessary for him to write the majority of “Genesis of the Big Bang” (co-author Robert Herman, who passed away in 1997 and was not involved in Ralph Alpher’s early work on nucleosynthesis, the basis for his dissertation and the “Alpha, Beta, Gamma” paper of April 1, 1948. However, “Blackbody Radiation” is a demonstration required in just about every Physics 101 course, and one could hardly call oneself knowledgeable of basic physics without describing it. Three degrees Kelvin is pretty cold, and very, very dark. Dr. Ralph Alpher’s shadow over Physics and Cosmology is also very, very long.


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Thank you for dropping in, Dr. Alpher.

    I would like to know more about your uncle’s Scouting experience. If you or someone in the family could provide information, I’d like to make it into a story.

    You can contact me at edarrell AT sbcglobal DOT net.


  11. Dr. Norman Alpher says:

    What a fine well written article about Ralph Alpher, my uncle. It is nice to know that there are many others who share the world’s “neglect” of his achievment.


  12. Bad says:

    People unfortunately still seem to believe that the Big Bang has something to do with “something coming from nothing” or even an ontological beginning to the universe, as opposed to just the start of the universe as we are familiar with it.


  13. […] over a month ago one of the chief theorists behind Big Bang theory died in Austin, Ralph Alpher. His death went largely unnoticed. In 2003, with the Nobel Prize winning-physicist Ilya Prigogine […]


  14. flatlander100 says:

    Thanks for the pointer. I missed the obit too and am glad you pointed it out. Enjoyed working my way through what you posted and some of the links. [Will save more for later.] Thanks again. I’ve found that this is for me probably the most consistently useful aspect of the web: I have all these people out there [like you and Ed Brayton and many others in many fields] scanning newspapers and books and professional journals and posting pointers for me to things I would never have found on my own. Your piece today is a good example.


  15. […] radiation that would be left over from the Big Bang died last month. His case was interesting as those who discovered the radiation that he predicted won the Nobel, but he did not! Anyway, go to the link to read a nice article about […]


  16. blueollie says:

    Actually, Stephen Hawking mentioned him in his book “A Brief History of Time.”

    I didn’t know that he was in Austin either.

    One bit of trivia: when I was a grad student I used to ride the elevator up with Weinberg; I didn’t know who he was but I thought that he was a nice man. :)


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