Ralph Asher Alpher : biography

February 3, 1921 - August 12, 2007

Although his name appears on the paper, Hans Bethe had no direct part in the development of the theory, although he later worked on related topics; Gamow added his name to make the Alpher-Bethe-Gamov title a pun on "Alpha-Beta-Gamma" (\alpha,\beta,\gamma), the first three letters of the Greek alphabet.Gamow joked that "There was, however, a rumor that later, when the alpha, beta, gamma theory went temporarily on the rocks, Bethe seriously considered changing his name to Zacharias". When referring to Robert Herman he wrote: "R. C. Herman, who stubbornly refuses to change his name to Delter" Thus, Alpher's independent dissertation was first published on April 1, 1948 in the Physical Review with three authors. The humor engendered by the prodigious Gamow may at times have obscured the critical role Alpher played in developing the theory. This seminal paper was based on his dissertation (defended shortly thereafter). Other scientists who read the paper may have erroneously assumed that Gamow and Bethe had been the primary contributors. With the award of the 2005 National Medal of Science, Alpher's original contributions (nucleosynthesis and the cosmic microwave background radiation predicition) to the modern big bang theory are beginning to receive due recognition. Neil deGrasse Tyson was instrumental in a NSF committee recommendation (personal communication to Dr. Victor S. Alpher, July 26, 2007).

Alpher and Robert Herman were awarded the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1993. They were also awarded the Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society in 1975, the Georges Vanderlinden Physics prize of the Belgian Academy of Sciences, as well as significant awards of the New York Academy of Sciences and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. Two Nobel Prizes in physics have been awarded for empirical work related to the cosmic background radiation — in 1978 to Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson and in 2006 to John Mather and George Smoot. Alpher and Herman (the latter, posthumously) published their own account of their work in cosmology in 2001, Genesis of the Big Bang (Oxford University Press).

He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986. In 2005 Alpher was awarded the National Medal of Science. The citation for the award reads "For his unprecedented work in the areas of nucleosynthesis, for the prediction that universe expansion leaves behind background radiation, and for providing the model for the Big Bang theory." The medal was presented to his son Dr. Victor S. Alpher on July 27, 2007 by President George W. Bush, as his father could not travel to receive the award. Ralph Alpher died following an extended illness on August 12, 2007. He had been in failing health since falling and breaking his hip in February 2007.

Alpher's approach to science

Alpher told Joseph D'Agnese in his interview for Discover Magazine, There are two reasons you do science. One is the 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.

Ralph Alpher told his son Victor (1980) when considering advanced education, that "approbation" of anyone was NOT the reason to pursue graduate study or a career requiring advanced intensive study. Rather, he said to Victor, "you must enjoy and find satisfaction in the work you do every day, because you will not receive frequent rewards or pats on the back." At that time had received only three awards for his work in cosmology, from the American Philosophical Society, the Belgian Academy of Science, and the Franklin Institute—all occurring after he turned 50 (personal communication to Victor S. Alpher added July 7, 2011).

Living octopus

Living octopus

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