Ralph A. Alpher; Physicist Published Theory of Big Bang

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

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.

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