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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.

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.

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