Ralph Asher Alpher (February 3, 1921 – August 12, 2007)[1][2] was an American cosmologist, who carried out pioneering work in the early 1950s on the Big Bang model, including big bang nucleosynthesis and predictions of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Childhood and education

Alpher was the son of a Belarussian Jewish immigrant, Samuel Alpher (born Ilfirovich), from Vitebsk, Belarus. His mother, Rose Maleson, died of stomach cancer in 1938, and his father later remarried. Alpher graduated at age 15 from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., and held the ranks of Major and Commander of his school's Cadet program. He worked in the high school theater as stage manager for two years, supplementing his family's Depression-era income. He also learned Gregg shorthand, and in 1937 began working for the Director of the American Geophysical Union as a stenographer. In 1940 he was hired by the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Foundation, where he worked with Dr. Scott Forbush under contract for the U.S. Navy to develop ship degaussing techniques during World War II. He contributed to the development of the Mark 32 and Mark 45 detonators, torpedoes, Naval gun control, and other top-secret ordnance work, and he was recognized at the end of the War with the Naval Ordnance Development Award (December 10, 1945—with Symbol). Alpher's war time work has been somewhat obscured by security classification.[citation needed] From 1944 through 1955, he was employed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. During the daytime he was involved in the development of ballistic missiles, guidance systems, and related subjects. In 1948 he earned his Ph.D. in Physics with a theory of nucleosynthesis called neutron-capture, and from 1948 onward collaborated with Dr. Robert C. Herman, also at APL, on predictions of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Alpher was somewhat ambivalent about the nature of his ordnance work.[3]

At age 16, he was offered a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but it was withdrawn after a mandatory meeting with an MIT alumnus in Washington, D.C., with little explanation or clarification.[4] Instead, he earned his bachelor's degree and advanced graduate degrees in physics from George Washington University, all the while working as a physicist on contract to the Navy, and eventually for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He met Russian physicist George Gamow at the University, who subsequently took him on as his doctoral student. This was somewhat of a coup, as Gamow was a prominent Soviet defector and one of the luminaries on the GWU faculty. Alpher provided much needed mathematical ability to support Gamow's theorizing. Gamow often gave talks across the world on "The Origin of the Elements", which was Alpher's original dissertation. Alpher followed this up with the first prediction of the existence of "fossil" radiation from a hypothetical singularity—the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This was observationally confirmed by Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs using a horn radiotelescope. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the observation in 1978.

While attending GWU, Alpher met Louise Ellen Simons, who was majoring in psychology at night school and working as a day secretary with the State Department. Nearly two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Alpher and Louise were married. At this time he had already done classified work for the U.S. Navy through the Carnegie Institution for nearly one and a half years. During a hiatus in his scientific work in early 1944, he did apply to the Navy for a commission, for which he was eligible. By this time he had done so much classified and secret work he was no longer subject to the draft (along with about 7,000 others), and prohibited from enlistment. That summer, he signed on to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to work on another classified project—a new magnetic-influence torpedo exploder. This was badly needed since the Mark 14 torpedo, which had a poorly tested exploder that had its magnetic component turned off by order of the Chief of Naval Operations in late 1943, was badly in need of replacement (V.S. Alpher, The Submarine Review, October, 2009).

Big Bang nucleosynthesis theory

Alpher's dissertation in 1948 dealt with a subject that came to be known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis. The Big Bang is a term coined initially in derision by Fred Hoyle on BBC Radio in 1950 to describe the cosmological model of the universe as expanding into its current state from a primordial condition of enormous density and temperature. Nucleosynthesis is the explanation of how more complex elements are created out of simple elements in the moments following the Big Bang. Right after the Big Bang, when the temperature was extremely high, if any nuclear particles, such as neutrons and protons, became bound together (being held together by the attractive nuclear force) they would be immediately broken apart by the high energy photons (quanta of light) present in high density. In other words, at this extremely high temperature, the photons' kinetic energy would overwhelm the binding energy of the strong nuclear force. For example, if a proton and a neutron became bound together (forming deuterium), it would be immediately broken apart by a high energy photon. However, as time progressed, the universe expanded and cooled and the average energy of the photons decreased. At some point, roughly one second after the Big Bang, the attractive force of nuclear attraction would begin to win out over the lower energy photons and neutrons and protons would begin to form stable deuterium nuclei. As the universe continued to expand and cool, additional nuclear particles would bind with these light nuclei, building up heavier elements such as helium, etc.

Alpher argued that the Big Bang would create hydrogen, helium and heavier elements in the correct proportions to explain their abundance in the early universe. Alpher and Gamow's theory originally proposed that all atomic nuclei are produced by the successive capture of neutrons, one mass unit at a time. However, later studies challenged the universality of the successive capture theory, since no element was found to have a stable isotope with an atomic mass of five or eight, hindering the production of elements beyond helium. It was eventually recognized that most of the heavy elements observed in the present universe are the result of stellar nucleosynthesis in stars, a theory largely developed by Hans Bethe, William Fowler and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

Since Alpher's dissertation was perceived to be ground-breaking, over 300 people attended the dissertation defense, including the press, and articles about his predictions and a Herblock cartoon appeared in major newspapers. This was quite unusual for a doctoral dissertation.

Later the same year, collaborating with Robert Herman, Alpher predicted the temperature of the residual radiation known as cosmic microwave background radiation resulting from the hypothesized Big Bang.[5] However, Alpher's predictions concerning the cosmic background radiation were more or less forgotten until they were rediscovered by Robert Dicke and Yakov Zel'dovich in the early 1960s. The existence of the cosmic background radiation and its temperature were measured experimentally in 1964 by two physicists working for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who were awarded the Nobel prize in physics for this work in 1978.[6]

Alpher's independent dissertation was first published on April 1, 1948 in the Physical Review with three authors: Alpher, Hans Bethe and Gamow.[7] Although his name appears on the paper, Bethe had no direct part in the development of the theory, although he later worked on related topics; Gamow added his name to make the author list Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, a pun on alpha, beta, gamma (α, β, γ), the first three letters of the Greek alphabet. Gamow joked that "There was, however, a rumor that later, when the alpha, beta, gamma theory went temporarily on the rocks, Bethe seriously considered changing his name to Zacharias". When referring to Robert Herman he wrote: "R. C. Herman, who stubbornly refuses to change his name to Delter." Alpher worried that the humor engendered by Gamow may have obscured his own critical role in developing the theory. With the award of the 2005 National Medal of Science, Alpher's original work on nucleosynthesis and the cosmic microwave background radiation prediction was recognised. Neil deGrasse Tyson was instrumental in a NSF committee recommendation (personal communication to Dr. Victor S. Alpher, July 26, 2007).

Alpher and Robert Herman were awarded the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1993.[8] They were also awarded the Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society in 1975, the Georges Vanderlinden Physics prize of the Belgian Academy of Sciences, as well as significant awards of the New York Academy of Sciences and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. Two Nobel Prizes in physics have been awarded for empirical work related to the cosmic background radiation — in 1978 to Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson and in 2006 to John Mather and George Smoot.[6] Alpher and Herman (the latter, posthumously) published their own account of their work in cosmology in 2001, Genesis of the Big Bang (Oxford University Press).

He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986.[9] In 2005 Alpher was awarded the National Medal of Science. The citation for the award reads "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." The medal was presented to his son, Dr. Victor S. Alpher, on July 27, 2007 by President George W. Bush, as his father could not travel to receive the award. Ralph Alpher died following an extended illness on August 12, 2007. He had been in failing health since falling and breaking his hip in February 2007.

Later career

In 1955 Alpher moved to a position with the General Electric Company's Research and Development Center. His primary role in his early years there was working on problems of vehicle re-entry from space. He also continued to collaborate with Robert Herman, who had moved to the General Motors Research Laboratory, on problems in cosmology. The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation was finally confirmed in 1964, although in retrospect many other astronomers and radio astronomers probably observed it.[citation needed]

From 1987 to 2004 he served as Distinguished Research Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, New York, during which time he was able to return to research and teaching. During all this time he continued to publish major peer-reviewed scientific papers and was active in community service for Public Broadcasting. Alpher was also (1987–2004) Director of The Dudley Observatory.

In 1986 he was recognized with the Distinguished Alumnus Achievement Award of the George Washington University. All of his degrees were achieved by studying at night whilst working for the Navy and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory during the daytime. In 2004 he joined the Emeritus faculty at Union and was Emeritus Director of Dudley. He also received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Union College and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. From 2005 until his death, he remained Emeritus Director of the Dudley Observatory and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Union College, Schenectady,

Alpher's approach to science

Alpher told Joseph D'Agnese in his interview for Discover Magazine, There are two reasons you do science. One is the altruistic feeling that maybe you can contribute to mankind's store of knowledge about the world. The other and more personal thing is you want the approbation of your peers. Pure and simple.[10]

Ralph Alpher told his son Victor in 1980, when considering advanced education, that approbation of anyone was not the reason to pursue graduate study or a career requiring advanced intensive study. Rather, he said to Victor, "you must enjoy and find satisfaction in the work you do every day, because you will not receive frequent rewards or pats on the back." Up to that time, he had received only three awards for his work in cosmology, from the American Philosophical Society, the Belgian Academy of Science, and the Franklin Institute—all occurring after he turned 50.[citation needed]

Personal life and views

Despite being raised in a Jewish family, he later on became an agnostic and considered himself to be a humanist.[11] He was deeply involved in community service activities, including the Boy Scouts in upstate New York, as well as developing WMHT-TV and WMHT-FM, public broadcasting on UHF and FM bands in the Albany-Schenectady area. After a falling out with the Rabbi at the Schenectady Reform Synagogue, he became involved with other Jewish families at the Unitarian Society in Schenectady, NY in the 1950s and 1960s. Former Methodist minister William J. Gold was the charismatic minister of this group. After serving as President of the Congregation there, he became much less involved upon Gold's departure. His daughter, Harriet, married a Conservative Jewish man from her college. Ralph Alpher showed very strong commitment to burial of his wife, Louise, in a traditional Jewish manner in 2004, extended to himself in 2007. He asked his son, Victor, to help facilitate these processes. He had been active in the Boy Scouts, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout (as did his son Victor); the "reverent" component of the Scout oath never presented a problem for him.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Ralph Alpher, 86, Expert in Work on the Big Bang, Dies". NY Times. 2007. 
  2. ^ Obituary in the Albany (NY) Times-Union
  3. ^ source: Dr. Victor S. Alpher[citation needed]
  4. ^ personal communication from Dr. Victor S. Alpher. Alpher himself believed that the scholarship was withdrawn due to the anti-Semitism widely prevalent in American academic institutions at the time. In an article published in Discover magazine, Joseph D'Agnese wrote But there's a catch. MIT says the scholarship is good only if Alpher attends full-time and does not work. This is the Great Depression. Alpher's immigrant father is a home builder in Washington, D.C., at a time when no one can afford to buy a house. Alpher doesn't even have train fare to Boston. How can he go to school if he can't work part-time for books and meals? The letter tells him to meet with an alumnus in Washington. He talks to the alum for hours, hoping to find a way to make this work. But the guy keeps turning the conversation back to the same subject—religion—and asks Alpher about his religious beliefs. "I told him I was Jewish," Alpher says. Soon after, a second letter comes. The scholarship is withdrawn, without explanation. "My brother had told me not to get my hopes up," Alpher says, "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. I don't know if you know what it was like for Jews before World War II. It was terrible." Later on, he was discouraged from majoring in Chemistry at GWU for similar reasons.D'Agnese
  5. ^ Gamow, G. (1948). "The Origin of Elements and the Separation of Galaxies". Phys. Rev. 74 (4): 505–6. Bibcode:1948PhRv...74..505G. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.74.505.2. 
    Gamow, G. (30 October 1948). "The Evolution of the Universe". Nature. 162 (4122): 680–2. Bibcode:1948Natur.162..680G. doi:10.1038/162680a0. PMID 18893719. 
    Alpher, R.A. (1948). "A Neutron-Capture Theory of the Formation and Relative Abundance of the Elements". Phys. Rev. 74 (11): 1577–89. Bibcode:1948PhRv...74.1577A. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.74.1577.  Alpher and Herman first estimated the temperature of the cosmic microwave background as 5° K, and two years later they re-estimated it as 28° K.
  6. ^ a b Erica Westly (October 6, 2008). "No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs". Scientific American. 
  7. ^ Alpher, R.A.; Bethe, H.; Gamow, G. (1948). "The Origin of Chemical Elements". Phys. Rev. 73 (7): 803–4. Bibcode:1948PhRv...73..803A. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.73.803. 
  8. ^ "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 24 February 2011. 
  9. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  10. ^ D'Agnese, J. (July 1999). "The Last Big Bang Man Left Standing". Discover: 61–67. 
  11. ^ Alpher, Ralph A. "Cosmology and Humanism" (PDF). Humanism Today. 3: 15–27. This leads inevitably to my identifying philosophically as an agnostic and a humanist, and explains my temerity in sharing my views with you. 

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