Alpher–Bethe–Gamow paper

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In physical cosmology, the Alpher–Bethe–Gamow paper, or αβγ paper, was created by Ralph Alpher, then a physics PhD student, and his advisor George Gamow. The work, which would become the subject of Alpher's PhD dissertation, argued that the Big Bang would create hydrogen, helium and heavier elements in the correct proportions to explain their abundance in the early universe. While the original theory neglected a number of processes important to the formation of heavy elements, subsequent developments showed that Big Bang nucleosynthesis is consistent with the observed constraints on all primordial elements.

Physical cosmology Universe events since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago

Physical cosmology is a branch of cosmology concerned with the studies of the largest-scale structures and dynamics of the universe and with fundamental questions about its origin, structure, evolution, and ultimate fate. Cosmology as a science originated with the Copernican principle, which implies that celestial bodies obey identical physical laws to those on Earth, and Newtonian mechanics, which first allowed those physical laws to be understood. Physical cosmology, as it is now understood, began with the development in 1915 of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, followed by major observational discoveries in the 1920s: first, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe contains a huge number of external galaxies beyond the Milky Way; then, work by Vesto Slipher and others showed that the universe is expanding. These advances made it possible to speculate about the origin of the universe, and allowed the establishment of the Big Bang theory, by Georges Lemaître, as the leading cosmological model. A few researchers still advocate a handful of alternative cosmologies; however, most cosmologists agree that the Big Bang theory explains the observations better.

Physics Study of the fundamental properties of matter and energy

Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its motion, and behavior through space and time, and that studies the related entities of energy and force. Physics is one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines, and its main goal is to understand how the universe behaves.

George Gamow Russian-American physicist and science writer

George Gamow, born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov, was a Soviet-American theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He was an early advocate and developer of Lemaître's Big Bang theory. He discovered a theoretical explanation of alpha decay via quantum tunneling, and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis and Big Bang nucleosynthesis, and molecular genetics.


Formally titled "The Origin of Chemical Elements", it was published in the April 1948 issue of Physical Review . [1]

Physical Review is an American peer-reviewed scientific journal established in 1893 by Edward Nichols. It publishes original research as well as scientific and literature reviews on all aspects of physics. It is published by the American Physical Society (APS). The journal is in its third series, and is split in several sub-journals each covering a particular field of physics. It has a sister journal, Physical Review Letters, which publishes shorter articles of broader interest.

Bethe's name

Gamow humorously decided to add the name of his friend—the eminent physicist Hans Bethe—to this paper in order to create the whimsical author list of Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, a play on the Greek letters α, β, and γ (alpha, beta, gamma). Bethe was listed in the article as "H. Bethe, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York". In his 1952 book, The Creation of the Universe, Gamow explained Hans Bethe's association with the theory thus:

Hans Bethe German-American nuclear physicist

Hans Albrecht Bethe was a German-American nuclear physicist who made important contributions to astrophysics, quantum electrodynamics and solid-state physics, and won the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis.

Cornell University Private Ivy League research university in Upstate New York

Cornell University is a private and statutory Ivy League research university in Ithaca, New York. Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, the university was intended to teach and make contributions in all fields of knowledge—from the classics to the sciences, and from the theoretical to the applied. These ideals, unconventional for the time, are captured in Cornell's founding principle, a popular 1868 Ezra Cornell quotation: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."

Ithaca, New York City in New York, United States

Ithaca is a city in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It is the seat of Tompkins County, as well as the largest community in the Ithaca–Tompkins County metropolitan area. This area contains the municipalities of the Town of Ithaca, the village of Cayuga Heights, and other towns and villages in Tompkins County. The city of Ithaca is located on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake, in Central New York, about 45 miles (72 km) south-west of Syracuse. It is named for the Greek island of Ithaca.

The abg paper with the figure referred to in the text Alpherbethegamov.gif
The αβγ paper with the figure referred to in the text

The results of these calculations were first announced in a letter to The Physical Review, April 1, 1948. This was signed Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow, and is often referred to as the 'alphabetical article.' It seemed unfair to the Greek alphabet to have the article signed by Alpher and Gamow only, and so the name of Dr. Hans A. Bethe (in absentia) was inserted in preparing the manuscript for print. Dr. Bethe, who received a copy of the manuscript, did not object, and, as a matter of fact, was quite helpful in subsequent discussions. There was, however, a rumor that later, when the alpha, beta, gamma theory went temporarily on the rocks, Dr. Bethe seriously considered changing his name to Zacharias.

The close fit of the calculated curve and the observed abundances is shown in Fig. 15, which represents the results of later calculations carried out on the electronic computer of the National Bureau of Standards by Ralph Alpher and R. C. Herman (who stubbornly refuses to change his name to Delter.)

Robert Herman was a United States scientist, best known for his work with Ralph Alpher in 1948-50, on estimating the temperature of cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang explosion.

After this, Bethe did work on Big Bang nucleosynthesis.

Big Bang nucleosynthesis The earliest production of nuclei other than those of the lightest isotope of hydrogen during the early phases of the Universe

In physical cosmology, Big Bang nucleosynthesis refers to the production of nuclei other than those of the lightest isotope of hydrogen during the early phases of the Universe. Primordial nucleosynthesis is believed by most cosmologists to have taken place in the interval from roughly 10 seconds to 20 minutes after the Big Bang, and is calculated to be responsible for the formation of most of the universe's helium as the isotope helium-4 (4He), along with small amounts of the hydrogen isotope deuterium, the helium isotope helium-3 (3He), and a very small amount of the lithium isotope lithium-7 (7Li). In addition to these stable nuclei, two unstable or radioactive isotopes were also produced: the heavy hydrogen isotope tritium ; and the beryllium isotope beryllium-7 (7Be); but these unstable isotopes later decayed into 3He and 7Li, as above.

Alpher, at the time only a graduate student, was generally dismayed by the inclusion of Bethe's name on this paper. He felt that the inclusion of another eminent physicist would overshadow his personal contribution to this work and prevent him from receiving proper recognition for such an important discovery. He expressed resentment over Gamow's whimsy as late as 1999. [2] [3] [4]

Main shortcoming of the theory

The theory originally proposed that all atomic nuclei are produced by the successive capture of neutrons, one mass unit at a time. However, later study challenged the universality of the successive capture theory. No element was found to have a stable isotope with an atomic mass of five or eight. Physicists soon noticed that these mass gaps would hinder the production of elements beyond helium. Just as it's impossible to climb a staircase one step at a time when one of the steps is missing, this discovery meant that the successive capture theory could not account for higher elements.

It was eventually recognized that most of the heavy elements observed in the present universe are the result of stellar nucleosynthesis in stars, a theory first suggested by Arthur Stanley Eddington, given credence by Hans Bethe, and quantitatively developed by Fred Hoyle and a number of other scientists.

However, the Alpher–Bethe–Gamow theory does correctly explain the relative abundances of the isotopes of hydrogen and helium. Taken together, these account for more than 99% of the baryonic mass of the universe. Today, nucleosynthesis is widely considered to have taken place in two stages: formation of hydrogen and helium according to the Alpher–Bethe–Gamow theory, and stellar nucleosynthesis of higher elements according to Bethe and Hoyle's later theories.


  1. Alpher, R. A.; Bethe, H.; Gamow, G. (1 April 1948). "The Origin of Chemical Elements". Physical Review . 73 (7): 803–804. Bibcode:1948PhRv...73..803A. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.73.803.
  2. The Last Big Bang Man Left Standing – physicist Ralph Alpher devised Big Bang Theory of universe ( mirror), Discover, July 1999
  3. Discussion of Alpher's role, NPR Books, June 1999
  4. The forgotten father of the Big Bang, The Daily Telegraph , 22 September 2004

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