Ralph Asher Alpher bigraphy, stories - American cosmologist

Ralph Asher Alpher : biography

February 3, 1921 - August 12, 2007

Ralph Asher Alpher (February 3, 1921 – August 12, 2007) was an American cosmologist.

Personal life and views

Despite being raised in a Jewish family, he later on became an agnostic. He also considered himself to be a humanist as well.

The rest of Alpher's 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 at G.E. was working on problems of vehicle re-entry from space (e.g. missile re-entry). 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.

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. His academic achievements were all the more remarkable since all of his degrees were achieved 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,

Childhood and education

Alpher was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant, Samuel Alpher, from Vitebsk, Russia. His mother, Rose, died of stomach cancer in 1938 and his father later remarried. Ralph graduated at age 15 from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., and was 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 Forbushunder contract for the U.S. Navy to develop ship degaussing techniques, evaluation, and related research during WWII. 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). Perhaps because of the highly classified nature of his work for the U.S. Navy and the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Alpher's war time work has been somewhat obscured. 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.source: Dr. Victor S. Alpher

At age 16, he was offered a full scholarship to MIT, but it was withdrawn after a mandatory meeting with an MIT alumnus in Washington, D.C., with ambiguous explanation or clarification.personal communication from Dr. Victor S. Alpher. Apparently Alpher himself believed that the scholarship was withdrawn due to the anti-Semitism widely prevalent in American academic institutions at the time. In the article he published in Discover magazine (see ), Joseph D'Agnese writes 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. 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 eminent 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 an eminent Soviet defector and one of the luminaries on the GWU faculty. It is apparent that Alpher provided much needed mathematical ability to support Gamow's theorizing.

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