The Last Big Bang Man Left Standing – physicist Ralph Alpher devised Big Bang Theory of universe
NO ONE EVER RECOGNIZES HIM, although he is arguably one of the most important scientists of the century. He seems to just blend into matter and light. On campus he’s the predictable physics prof, emerging from the science building at Union College with his hands deep in his pockets, a suspender peeking out from under his tan sweater. But you can blow his cover with a single question’ Where did we come from? Ralph Alpher knows the answer. Back in 1948, Alpher wrote a Ph.D. dissertation that gave birth to the scientific theory known as the Big Bang. He revealed, mathematically at least, how the universe began in a superhot explosion 14 billion years ago. A few months later, he showed how to prove it. But in 1948, good math or not, these were loony ideas, and radio astronomy was a very young science. No one seemed willing or able to point a radio telescope toward deep space to confirm them. The years rolled by and everyone forgot about Ralph Alpher. Then one day in 1964, two radio astronomers from Bell Labs stumbled on the evidence that Alpher was right. Except they had never heard of him either. So they got the Nobel Prize, and he got bupkis. But that’s exactly the kind of injustice Ralph Alpher is used to.
Roll the tape back to 1937. The kindly old physics professor is a husky 16-year-old prodigy with dark hair and glasses. He gets a letter from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It invites him to attend the school for free, on a full scholarship.
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 The scholarship is withdrawn, without explanation.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.”
When Ralph Alpher says something is terrible, you believe it. The word turns to ash as it drops from his lips.
Of course Alpher had earned that scholarship. Just as he had earned the right to get credit for his theory about the Big Bang. And that’s what really drives him crazy: credit is everything to a scientist. “The important thing is to get the credit in the literature,” he says. “There are two reasons you do science. One is an 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.”
Yes, this has happened before, scientists who made good and never collected. Perhaps the most famous example is Gregor Mendel, the Austrian botanist and monk who tinkered with sweet peas in his monastery courtyard. He summed up everything he had observed about the propagation of genetic traits in two papers that were published without much notice long before he died in 1884. Only after the chromosome theory of heredity was nailed down in the early 1900s was he hailed as the father of genetics.
Alpher may be the Mendel of the modern age. “I don’t really know Mr. Alpher,” says Hans Bethe, 93, Nobel laureate and often lauded as the world’s greatest living physicist. But the theorist who helped Oppenheimer build the first atomic bomb and later devoted his life to disarmament does know Alpher’s story. “I think it is a fact that he has not been given proper credit, and it is a fact that he deserves a lot of credit.”
Growing up, Ralph Asher Alpher had a code. It’s in the Boy Scout Handbook: A Scout works to pay his way. A Scout is true. That’s Alpher. He rises formally and gives you a two-handed shake. He doesn’t laugh; he chortles politely. He has worked steadily since he was 12 years old, a stagehand earning 50 cents an hour. Some weeks it was more than his father made.
Alpha is A, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Aleph in Hebrew, alif in Arabic. A name that signifies beginnings–genesis, how the world began. Alpher has already thought about this by the time he is 11. In Hebrew school he reads Genesis and begins to argue with his rabbi. His private stash of books tells a more rational tale. They are written by science heavyweights: Sir Arthur Eddington. Paul de Kruif. Sir James Jeans.
The rabbi’s book was written by the finger of God.
“It got hot and heavy,” Alpher recalls. “I’d bring in quotations, with references, and he didn’t want to have any part of it. Finally he said, `You gotta go through the bar mitzvah to honor your father. And after that,’ he said, `I don’t care what the hell you do.'”
Alpher does his duty. The bar mitzvah goes well. When his mother, Rose, dies of stomach cancer in 1938, Alpher is only 17 but he does his duty again. Twice a day for 11 months he and his brother attend services, morning and night, at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, where they can be assured of men for the minyan. Each morning they nibble small egg biscuits, kuchen, and down shots of Four Roses whiskey. Alpher does not care for alcohol. He is working full-time as a secretary to make money to pay for night school. Each morning, he goes off to take dictation with whiskey on his breath.
Many years later, his father, Samuel, remarries. The new wife trashes Alpher’s Eagle Scout merit badges. His uniform. His guidebooks. All of it gone. This happens when he is a much older man, with a wife and children of his own. But he will never forgive her.
He searches his memory for the sound of his mother’s voice, for a single significant remark Rose or his father made to him. “No words of wisdom from either of them,” he says. “Terrible, isn’t it?”
Work by day, classes at George Washington University by night, at first in chemistry. Friends warn him there are no jobs for Jews in chemistry. On to physics, Einstein’s field. At the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, he tries to figure out how to protect ships from magnetic mines. At Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, he works on torpedo exploder devices and guided missiles.
His thesis adviser at GWU is a hulking Soviet defector named George Gamow (pronounced GAM-off). A huge man whose idea of dinner is a few gin martinis. He writes the kinds of science books Alpher used to read as a kid. Gamow tosses him a dissertation problem dear to his own heart: me origin of the elements. For years the elder scientist has toyed with the notion that the early universe was hot and dense, and that neutrons played a role in the formation of the chemical elements. But he hasn’t hammered out a theory for how all that might have happened. That becomes Alpher’s task.
Alpher is excited. The origin of the universe is off the beaten path for physicists then, weird science. The closer you get to Time = 0, the more the mathematics seem to self-destruct and the more impossible it becomes to determine how the particles behave. Gamow says, hey, forget about the exact beginning of time. Everyday physics had to kick in at some point. Our physics. Let’s start there, Ralph.
Alpher’s signature skill is apparent from the outset. Eamon Harper, a GWU physicist and science historian, has spent three years researching Gamow’s biography. Sifting through papers at the Library of Congress, a picture of Alpher as detail man emerges. “Alpher was very meticulous. Even in their letters, he would write detailed calculations. Gamow would make calculations, too, but he was always thinking of the quickest way to get to the end.”
Alpher and Gamow focused on the point when the universe had cooled to a state consisting of radiation and matter, ylem, Greek for the primordial stuff of life. Alpher’s final draft gives the mechanics for what happened next: ylem began as a cloud of neutrons, neutral particles. Some of these decayed radioactively, forming protons, electrons, neutrinos, the building blocks of matter. As the universe cooled and expanded, Alpher writes, the remaining neutrons, plus protons and electrons, combined to form all the elements.
It later turned out that this picture was not entirely accurate. For one thing, the process apparently stopped with elements that have an atomic number of 5 or higher. But that’s not the point, Harper says. For the first time, a workable formula had spelled out how the universe was born. “It’s hard for laymen, even scientists today, to realize how visionary their work was,” he says. “The whole idea of suggesting that you can, on the basis of science, explain the distribution of elements–the material we’re all made of, how we came to be–that was not a suitable question for scientists. It was mystical, theological.”
God wasn’t in the details; Alpher was.
As he is finishing up the paper, Alpher comes down with the mumps. This is how the last draft of the Big Bang sees life: a swollen-jawed doctoral student sitting up in bed, writing by hand, passing papers to his young wife, Louise, who sits nearby muttering and typing. Her husband has spent six years in night school getting his bachelor’s degree. Add two years for the master’s, three for the doctorate. Look at him. He should be resting. The couple had met over a bridge game at GWU in 1940. At the time, she was a psychology major, attending night school, too, working days as a secretary in the State Department. They were married two years later, a month after Pearl Harbor. The rabbi was Reform; his poodle came to the ceremony. Alpher’s Orthodox family did not.
Louise types the paper, and Alpher presents it to Gamow, a guy who had once unsuccessfully tried to defect from the Soviet Union by rowing across the Black Sea. Gamow’s approach to physics was no different: look for shortcuts. Think big. Have fun. Today they call Gamow brilliant; back then he was eccentric, as Alpher was about to find out.
Gamow excitedly flips through Alpher’s paper and grins. “Now I want to do something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“I want to put Hans Bethe’s name on it.” Gamow is in love with the idea of playing off the authors’ names–Alpha, Beta, Gamma.
“The hell!” says Alpher.
This is my dissertation, he says. How can Gamow kid around like this? Alpher worries that the paper’s topic is so speculative that journal editors will be inclined to reject it anyway. Bethe, then known for explaining the origin of the sun’s energy, is working at Los Alamos. He hasn’t done a lick of work on this paper. But Gamow persists; Alpher assents. Off goes the paper.
The day they drop it in the mail, Gamow and another scientist–Robert Herman, whom Alpher had met at Johns Hopkins–appear in Alpher’s office with a bottle of Cointreau doctored to read YLEM. Alpher hates the orange liqueur but downs it just the same. He still has the bottle. The Smithsonian wants it. Sometime later, Alpher gets a postcard from the prestigious physics journal the Physical Review and shudders. Publication is set for April 1, 1948.
Publication makes the Alpha Beta Gamma paper hot. But Alpher still has to defend it before the faculty to get his Ph.D. When the day arrives, he nervously pulls on his academic robes and enters the auditorium. He freezes. The place is packed with 300 people. Bethe is there. Ugo Fano, Charles Critchfield, top physicists. Newspaper reporters. Science writers. There are rarely more than a dozen people attending oral exams. But hundreds have come to see the kid who thinks he knows how the universe was born. Alpher marches behind Gamow into the ring to take the committee’s questions. Asked how long the entire process of primordial nucleosynthesis had taken, he answers 300 seconds. The press goes crazy. “Scientist says world was created in five minutes,” reads a skeptical Herblock editorial cartoon in the next edition of the Washington Post.
“I began to get letters from people saying novenas to save my soul because I had dared to trample on their concept of Genesis,” Alpher says.
Not long after, at his home on Farragut Street, Samuel Alpher settles in with his favorite newspaper, Der Tog. And gasps. Staring back at him above the fold of the Yiddish daily is the smiling face of his son. He reads the story a few times but doesn’t really understand it. It doesn’t matter. His boy Ralph is on the front page of Der Tog.
Alpher follows up his original paper by publishing 18 research reports with Herman, a wiry New Yorker with an elegant mustache. Alpher and Herman’s first paper together predicts what astronomers could find in space to prove the Big Bang actually happened. It says: Look, the radiation from the primeval explosion still exists. Some of the heat is stiff out there. It’s with us now. It’s been bouncing around in space for 14 billion years and has cooled to a temperature of 5 degrees Kelvin. Which is still plenty cold, about 450 degrees below zero.
Today that calculation seems very simple. Just a proportion: radiation seconds after the Big Bang divided by the amount of Matter then, equals Radiation now divided by Matter now. The key formula is small enough to write on the back of an envelope. But try coming up with it based on data. This is 1948. No 350-megahertz laptops. Not even a graphing calculator. Alpher and Herman have one calculating machine. Start it up, and it clacks so badly you have to leave the room. It takes the two men all summer to certify their simple formula.
It comes down to this: find the radiation, you prove the Big Bang theory. But in 1948 astrophysicists tell Alpher and Herman there’s no way to measure background radiation in space. You don’t just go out and wave around an antenna. You need to train a specific receiver on a specific band of the electromagnetic spectrum. Alpher and Herman can’t do it themselves; they’re not radio astronomers.
They don’t give up. They give talks. Alpher publishes more papers with Herman and Gamow. They buttonhole radio astronomers wherever they go. At one point, they even give a press conference. Nonetheless, they come up with a cosmic goose egg. So they let it drop. Years later, younger scientists will say this work has been forgotten. And Alpher will think: How could that be, after all this? They will say Alpher and Herman didn’t try hard enough. (Alpher will say, “We were there. They weren’t.”) Some people will say Alpher and Herman didn’t know that the 5 degrees K was microwave radiation, which will really get to Alpher: “A sophomore physics student would know that.”
The two men have growing families to support and are unhappy at Johns Hopkins. In 1955, Alpher heads for General Electric in Schenectady. He works on color television, energy conversion, gas dynamics, writes about 100 papers for GE alone. Herman goes to General Motors. They stay in touch, write four more papers together. “We slacked off, rightly or wrongly, after 1955,” Alpher says.
The world turns around. In 1965, the Astrophysical Journal hits Alpher’s desk, featuring two articles, a scientific double whammy, a paradigm shift in plain paper wrappers:
Item 1: Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two radio astronomers using an ultrasensitive radio telescope at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, unexpectedly detect unwavering radiation of 3.5 degrees K bathing the universe.
Item 2: Working independently, a four-man research team, led by physicist Robert Dicke at Princeton University, pegs the finding as radiation left over from a primordial freball. The team had predicted heat of 10 degrees K and were building a telescope in order to measure it when Penzias and Wilson scooped them.
Alpher feels ecstatic for about a minute. Then his heart is in his throat. He pages through the reports looking for his name. He finds one single line indicating that in the 1940s, he, Herman, and Gamow had envisioned a nucleosynthesis process like the one mentioned in the report. But there is not a single mention of Alpher and Herman’s 1948 prediction. Several months before, the editor of the Physical Review had sent a paper from the Princeton team to Alpher and Herman, asking that they review it, a common practice in technical journals. The two men told the editor that the Princeton team had duplicated their work. They suggested rejecting it. The editor sent a second version of the paper to Alpher and Herman. It still didn’t credit them. Alpher and Herman sent it back again, citing references. Nothing happened. Now the Princeton paper and the Bell Labs paper have appeared in a different journal.
Alpher is appalled. Why didn’t they give him credit for the prediction? That was the way the game was played. The way men of science did things. Where was their code ?
He pauses in his tale. It’s midday now, and he’s been talking since morning. Sitting in the cafeteria at Union College, his academic home for the past 11 years, Alpher removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. Around him, midterm-crazed undergraduates drink coffee. Alpher’s bassoon voice drops. “People were wondering why we were upset, but they never sat in our shoes,” he says. “Was I hurt? Yes! How the hell did they think I’d feel?”
Left out of the glory, Alpher and Herman and Gamow hit their typewriters in 1965 and never stop. The stream of print is punctuated by several events. Gamow’s death in 1968, for one. In 1971, James Peebles, the key author of the controversial Princeton paper and today Albert Einstein Professor of Science at the university, sets the record straight in his book, Physical Cosmology. But Alpher and Herman keep writing letters. Stephen Hawking gets one in the late eighties, after he credits the Princeton team–and Gamow alone–in A Brief History of Time. (Eleven years after the first edition, the passage remains unchanged.) Another letter to Penzias addresses their “high frustration level,” claiming falsehoods have become “widely entrenched” in the literature. They say they’ve dealt with the matter in a “gentlemanly way.” And they enlist Penzias’s help to set the record straight “in the best traditions of scientific integrity without embarrassment to anyone.” The words are pure Alpher: proper, but plenty angry.
The next insult: In 1978, Penzias and Wilson win the Nobel Prize for physics. While Penzias is working on his acceptance speech, he invites Alpher, who is giving a lecture at nearby Rutgers, to come by for a visit. Penzias has, perhaps wisely, stayed out of the Princeton controversy. Now he plans to delineate the history of the origin of the elements, citing the work of Gamow, Alpher, and Herman in his acceptance speech. The meeting is difficult for Alpher. “I spent a day and a half with him in which I gave him a crash course on cosmology, and he didn’t know a damned thing.” Later he says, “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.”
A month later, Alpher suffers a heart attack. He blames it partly on that visit. Penzias, now a consultant in San Francisco, says the news “really made me feel bad. He has an enormous personal investment in this.”
Until the heart attack, Alpher’s children did not realize how much stress their father had endured during his crusade for recognition. Or even how important it was to him. Alpher had shared his concerns daily with Louise, who many times urged him to drop it, but he had deliberately shielded his children. “He doesn’t let you know when something is bothering him,” says his daughter, Harriet Lebetkin, a music teacher in Connecticut. “I was pregnant with my first child. Here he was, getting ready to be a grandfather, and I almost lost him.”
Victor Alpher, a retired clinical psychologist in Houston, didn’t learn the magnitude of his father’s accomplishments until he was well into his twenties. When Victor was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania in 1975, his father and Herman came to town to accept a medal from the American Philosophical Society, the Magellanic Premium, their very first award. (There would be six major ones in all, including one handed to them by the King of Belgium.) Informed of the first ceremony, Victor asked, “Why are they giving you a medal?”
“It was a horrible injustice, but I don’t know what you do in such a circumstance,” says Vera Rubin, a friend to both families, an astronomer who won the National Medal of Science in 1993. “It would have been nice if they had had happier lives. They could have known that they did something very valuable, and they could have been happy with this. I think injustices are in the eye of the beholder, unfortunately.” Then she says, “They really have a legitimate complaint, but they could have responded a little differently. … If they had just not been so obviously angry.”
In November 1989, when NASA launched the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE (pronounced KO-bee), a $150-million, two-and-a-half-ton satellite designed to investigate the questions raised in Alpher and Herman’s papers, the two aging scientists watched it go up as guests of NASA. COBE subsequently detected cosmic background radiation at 2.7 degrees K. “I think maybe a couple of thousand papers have been written since COBE measured it,” says John Mather, then COBE project scientist. “That’s really incredible.”
In his daily life, Alpher is trying to leave the past behind. “These things are of no consequence anymore.” In recent years, he threw himself into a stream of local activities: tutoring kids, mentoring scouts, chairing the board of the local public TV station. Today he’s busy trying to finish a book about cosmology that he began seven years ago.
Not long ago Alpher was invited to give a lecture in Odessa, Ukraine–the hometown of both his father and his mentor, Gamow. He declined. Louise has been ill. “It’s been a rocky road,” he says of their 57 years together as husband and wife. “We had our ups and downs. It hasn’t been smooth. Physicists as a class are a peculiar bunch. Our primary interest is in science and in the work, and sometimes affairs at home take second place. And I’m sure that hurt Louise along the way very much. But we survived.”
As a boy Alpher often sneaked off to peek through a telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory on public viewing nights. Today he is the administrator of the Dudley Observatory and its library, housed in a local senior center. Twice a week he heads over, fishes for the keys, unlocks the door, hits the light. Inside are marble busts, rare books, and an antique telescope. “Here’s what I do,” he says. He hunches over a small Radio Shack answering machine. “I hit the button and I follow the directions,” he jokes. There is a beep, and he begins to read from a freshly printed script: “If we’re lucky enough to have clear skies this weekend, you won’t even need a telescope to enjoy the best show around. On Friday night the crescent moon, Saturn, and Venus will be cheek by jowl in the western sky at dusk. …”
On he goes for several minutes. Then he hits the button. “Now I check it,” he say,” and lifts the receiver on a second phone line. He dials the number of the observatory’s Skywatch phone line, and waits. The first phone rings. The machine clicks. A booming voice flows from the receiver in his hand. Alpher’s voice. The last of the Big Bang men nods: Not bad, huh?
JOSEPH D’AGNESE (“The Last Big Bang Man Left Standing,” page 60) remembers learning about how the universe formed, but he doesn’t recall learning the name of physicist Ralph Alpher. In fact, few people recognize Alpher as the man who conceived of the Big Bang–and wrote the equation that proved it possible. “At first glance, he’s a humble man who doesn’t like to call attention to himself,” says D’Agnese. “But his story is a compelling one, and one that I think resonates with any professional person. I think he was glad that someone was looking into it again.” Many people have forgotten Alpher’s contribution, says D’Agnese, but Alpher has not. “He’s a reporter’s dream. He has total recall of facts, scenes, events, everything.”
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