Ralph A. Alpher was born in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1921, the last of four children of Samuel and Rose Alpher. Samuel was an immigrant from Vitebsk, Belarussia, in 1904, with one of his brothers.They left eastern Europe after the highly publicized Easter pogroms of 1903—the first internationally publicized pogroms of the wire-press era. Rose Maleson of Riga, Latvia, had emigrated from her homeland and was living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Brown Street.
Ralph was a mathematics prodigy, graduating from Theodore Roosevelt High School at the age of 15. He worked as a manager of the stage crew at the school, earning extra money for his family in the heart of the Depression. He also took Gregg Shorthand and worked as a secretary in several Federal agencies, finally matriculating at The George Washington University in the night school in Spring Semester, 1939.
Alpher finished his Bachelor’s degree in 1943, his Master’s in 1946, and his Doctorate in Physics in 1948. His dissertation was on the formation of the chemical elements in the hypothetical “Big Bang.” This drew the attention of the wire services, leading to the need for a large room for his dissertation defense. There were more than 300 persons in attendance. Faculty came in full academic regalia. This Night School student had produced a significant academic event for his alma mater. In 1986, he was awarded the “Distinguished Alumni” award by The George Washington University (which included a large bust of George Washington).
Shortly after defending his dissertation, he was still working, as he had from August 1, 1944, at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Bouncing ideas off of the man he shared office space with, Robert C. Herman, he developed the idea that the “Big Bang” should have left behind relict radiation that could be measured in 1948. He calculated what the temperature should be (about 5K), and published this finding first in the fall of 1948, and again in a more fully developed form in early 1949.
Although there had been observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation at least since 1940, no one knew what they were measuring—that is, that it had cosmological significance. Alpher and Herman set about to find someone who could measure the radiation, but they could not convince any of their experimental colleagues to do it! The first measurement that was recognized was made by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1964, and published in 1965 in The Astrophysical Journal. For the measurement, Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.
For their prediction, Alpher and Herman received numerous awards of recognition, including the Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society, the John Price Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute, the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Prix de Georges Vanderlinden of the Belgian Academy of Sciences. Ralph Alpher was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush shortly before the end of his life.
John C. Mather and George Smoot received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006 for their accurate measurement of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation on a space platform (the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer, or COBE, was launched in 1989). Ralph A. Alpher passed away on August 12, 2007, knowing that his prediction and the measurement of the background radiation had not only established the “Big Bang” theory as the predominant theory in cosmology during his lifetime, but also that he had, with slide rule, pencil, and thought, helped turn cosmology into a physical science. Prior to his work, cosmology was thought of more as a part of speculative philosophy.
Alpher was a quiet theoretical physicist, who excelled in his attention to detail and care with regard to speculation that went too far from available data that would support it. His dissertation chair, George A. Gamow, was quite the opposite. Gamow had defected from the Soviet Union in 1933. He ended up at The George Washington University in 1935 with a tenured appointment. He brought many prominent European physicists to Washington for his nearly-annual Washington Conferences (suspended during WWII). Consequently, Ralph Alpher was able to meet physicists of the caliber of Niels Bohr without having to travel from Washington—which he could not afford to do regardless. What Alpher lacked in travel was made up for by Gamow, who loved to travel. He often would give lectures on Alpher’s theory of nucleosynthesis. As a result, Alpher’s work came to be attributed by many to Gamow.
One of the significant aspects of my own work in the history of cosmology has been to give correct attribution, supported by primary source material, the nature of Ralph A. Alpher’s early work in this field. In addition, I have been able to reveal, using the Freedom of Information Act, significant work undertaken by Alpher in his “day job.” From 1940 through 1944, he was a contract employee of the Department of Ordnance, U.S. Navy. He made significant contributions to the retrofitting of naval vessels with degaussing coils, as well as designing systems to be installed in new vessels that were built for the coming involvement of the U.S. in WWII. Beginning August 1, 1944, he was a full-time employee of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. His first project there was to design a new Magnetic-Contact Torpedo Exploder, known as the Mark 10. For this work he was recognized with the Naval Ordnance Development Award—not once, but twice. Further work included development of a specialization in supersonic flight, the development of ballistic missiles, and study of cosmic rays with John Van Allen.
In 1955, Alpher took a position with the Corporate Research and Development Center of the General Electric Company in upstate New York. He was able to continue his work in cosmology with Bob Herman, who had left Johns Hopkins at about the same time to head a new department of research at General Motors. There, Herman developed the study of traffic flow, which became a recognized discipline within Engineering.
Although his daily work became more consumed by the needs of GE around 1965, Alpher and Herman continued to collaborate. They produced a significant historical review paper that was published in Physics Today in 1988, and contributed reviews to several publications in the 1990s, as well as published talks from the 1996 assembly convened in recognition of George A. Gamow. Ironically, the only recognized prize Gamow was awarded was the Kalinga Prize of the U.N. in 1956, which sponsored a lecture tour of southeast Asia—more travel, which Gamow loved. However, his book writing, for which he was recognized for its worldwide impact by the U.N., slowed down his theoretical work in favor of travel and editing new editions of his books. This was lucrative, but also hindered Gamow’s work and health. He died in 1968, with multiple medical problems aggravated by poor diet and abuse of alcohol. Herman passed away on February 13, 1997. As Alpher and Herman had discussed the writing of a book about their experiences and careers in cosmology many times, the resulting work Genesis of the Big Bang (Oxford, 2001), bears the names Ralph A. Alpher and Robert C. Herman as coauthors. This is the definitive work in their words of their 50 years of collaboration in cosmology.
Early in his life and career, Alpher was at the center of a vortex of creative activity that led to great advancements in cosmology. By the age of 30, he had made many of his most significant contributions to the field. My own scholarly work, beginning in about 2004, has focused on the development of his ideas and the context of his creative work. As much of his early work was Classified, assembling his personal papers along with his contemporaneous work under contract to the U.S. Navy has at times been arduous. However, the resulting peer-reviewed articles have given me a great degree of intellectual satisfaction. I have uncovered aspects of his work that previously were not known, but are significant to the history of cosmology. I hope visitors to this website will find that their understanding of the history of cosmology is advanced by my efforts.
The following articles are not only biographical and autobiographical in nature, but also include analyses of Dr. Alpher’s work within the field of cosmology, astrophysics, naval ordnance, and other practical problems facing the Navy. The peer-reviewed articles can be downloaded here.
(click DOWNLOAD to receive the desired PDF)
Ralph A. Alpher’s Early Career: What Kind of Physicists Were They? Radiations, Volume 14, Issue 2, 6-14 (Fall, 2008)
The History of Cosmology as I Have Lived Through It. Radiations, Volume 15, Issue 1, 8-18.
Torpedo Exploder Mechanisms of World War II – The Submarine Review (Spring, 2009)
The Mark 9 Torpedo Exploder Mechanism: A Contact-Influence Successor to the Mark 14 MOD 6 During WWII – The Submarine Review (October 2009)
The Mark 9 Torpedo Exploder Mechanism: A Contact-Influence Successor to the Mark 14 MOD 6 During WWII – The Submarine Review (October, 2009)
Degaussing Policy During WWII: Key to Submarine Action and Victory in the Atlantic and the Pacific, Part I of II – The Submarine Review (October, 2010)
Degaussing Policy During WWII: Successful Operations and Proposals for Modification, Part II of II – The Submarine Review (January, 2011)
Ralph A Alpher, George Antonovich Gamow, and the Prediction of the Cosmic – Asian Journal of Physics Vol. 23, Nos 1 & 2 (2014)
Ralph A. Alpher, Robert C. Herman, and the Cosmic Microwave Background
Radiation – Physics in Perspective Volume 14, Issue 3(2014)
The following are presently available on a highly limited basis (CD and DVD format). These were intended primarily for the Historian of Science, and Physics/Cosmology research community. Please inquire if you are interested in these items.
- 1966 Audio Interview on CD “The Universe Revisited” (@ 30 minutes).
- 1973 Audio Lecture on CD in Richmond, Virginia–Big Bang Past, Present, Future.
- 1982 Interview on 980 AM, WSIX, Nashville, Tennessee, The Al Voecks Show. (2 minutes of the beginning missing). 22-plus minutes. Explanation of universal expansion, “Big Crunch,” nontechnical.
- 1988 Lecture on DVD in Dr. John Sowa’s Chemistry class at Union College on the Big Bang, Union College, Schenectady, New York. Sound and picture quality excellent. Approximately 45 minutes, excellent sound and picture quality.
- 1994 Colloquium DVD @ 90 minutes on the Big Bang. Excellent sound and picture quality.
- 1999 Radio Interview on CD–@ 23 minutes.
- 2000 Interview–Two one-hour DVDs, excellent sound and picture quality, interview including extensive reminiscences from Dr. Alpher’s early career at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution, and work with Drs. Gamow and Herman.
- 60 minute DVD interview of January 4, 2005 in which Dr. Alpher discusses the current state of the Big Bang, current understanding of black holes and dark matter, and other matters of current cosmological significance. Excellent sound and picture quality.
In addition, a PACKET of about 50 pages of expansions, corrections, and errata is now available as a companion to Dr. Alpher´s book co-authored with Dr. Robert Herman, “Genesis of the Big Bang” (Oxford Press, 2001). As it is classified as a textbook, the best way to obtain the book is through Amazon or order from a local bookseller. The original book, long out of print, is now, once more, available “on demand” with the original dustjacket integrated into a durable hardcover.
ON THE HISTORY CHANNEL
Episode 8 of the History Channel’s series “The Universe” Season One, “Beyond the Big Bang” featuring Dr. Ralph A. Alpher is still available. It received a CINE award in 2007 and is still available for sale from the History Channel and A & E Networks.
Don’t miss it! Script by producer Matthew Hickey of Workaholic Productions (and previously Modern Marvels), who interviewed Dr. Alpher for the documentary on September 1, 2006, in Austin, Texas.
This is the last formal interview given by Dr. Alpher, integrated into the history of cosmology from man’s earliest wonderment at the heavens above, to the findings of the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer.
Ralph A. Alpher had been proposing such observation from interstellar space, absent the noise from terrestrial sources, leading to a higher Signal to Noise ratio, since the early 1960s. This is documented in the Physics in Perspective article.