Ralph Asher Alpher

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Ralph Asher Alpher
Born(1921-02-03)February 3, 1921
DiedAugust 12, 2007(2007-08-12) (aged 86)
Austin, Texas, U.S.
NationalityAmerican
Alma mater George Washington University
Known forFirst modern physical theory of nucleosynthesis and prediction of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation in 1948.
Awards Magellanic Premium (1975)
Henry Draper Medal (1993)
National Medal of Science (2005)
Scientific career
FieldsCosmology, Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics
Institutions Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, General Electric Research and Development Center, Union College, Dudley Observatory
Doctoral advisor Georg Antonovich Gamow

Ralph Asher Alpher (February 3, 1921 – August 12, 2007) [1] [2] was an American cosmologist, who carried out pioneering work in the early 1950s on the Big Bang model, including Big Bang nucleosynthesis and predictions of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

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.

Big Bang The prevailing cosmological model for the observable universe

The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model for the observable universe from the earliest known periods through its subsequent large-scale evolution. The model describes how the universe expanded from a very high-density and high-temperature state, and offers a comprehensive explanation for a broad range of phenomena, including the abundance of light elements, the cosmic microwave background (CMB), large scale structure and Hubble's law. If the observed conditions are extrapolated backwards in time using the known laws of physics, the prediction is that just before a period of very high density there was a singularity which is typically associated with the Big Bang. Physicists are undecided whether this means the universe began from a singularity, or that current knowledge is insufficient to describe the universe at that time. Detailed measurements of the expansion rate of the universe place the Big Bang at around 13.8 billion years ago, which is thus considered the age of the universe. After its initial expansion, the universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity, eventually forming early stars and galaxies, the descendants of which are visible today. Astronomers also observe the gravitational effects of dark matter surrounding galaxies. Though most of the mass in the universe seems to be in the form of dark matter, Big Bang theory and various observations seem to indicate that it is not made out of conventional baryonic matter but it is unclear exactly what it is made out of.

Contents

Childhood and education

Alpher was the son of a Belarusian Jewish immigrant, Samuel Alpher (born Ilfirovich), from Vitebsk, Belarus. His mother, Rose Maleson, died of stomach cancer in 1938, and his father later remarried. Alpher graduated at age 15 from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., and held the ranks of 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 Forbush under contract for the U.S. Navy to develop ship degaussing techniques during World War II. He contributed to the development of the Mark 32 and Mark 45 detonators, torpedoes, Naval gun control, Magnetic Airborne Detection (of submarines), and other top-secret ordnance work (including the Manhattan Project), and he was recognized at the end of the War with the Naval Ordnance Development Award (December 10, 1945—with Symbol), and another Naval Ordnance Development award in 1946. Alpher's war time work been somewhat obscured by security classification.[ citation needed ] 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, supersonics, 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 (Ph.D. in Physics, 1940, Princeton University, under E. Condon), also at APL, on predictions of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (now widely referred to by the acronym CMB). Alpher was somewhat ambivalent about the nature of his ordnance work. having dedicated much of his early career to this in order to obtain his doctorate. [3]

Vitebsk City in Viciebsk Region, Belarus

Vitebsk, or Viciebsk, is a city in Belarus. The capital of the Viciebsk Region, it had 342,381 inhabitants in 2004, making it the country's fourth-largest city. It is served by Viciebsk Vostochny Airport and Viciebsk Air Base.

Stomach cancer gastrointestinal system cancer that is located in the stomach

Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is a cancer that develops from the lining of the stomach. Early symptoms may include heartburn, upper abdominal pain, nausea and loss of appetite. Later signs and symptoms may include weight loss, yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, vomiting, difficulty swallowing and blood in the stool among others. The cancer may spread from the stomach to other parts of the body, particularly the liver, lungs, bones, lining of the abdomen and lymph nodes.

Washington, D.C. Capital of the United States

Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington or D.C., is the capital of the United States. Founded after the American Revolution as the seat of government of the newly independent country, Washington was named after George Washington, the first President of the United States and a Founding Father. As the seat of the United States federal government and several international organizations, Washington is an important world political capital. The city is also one of the most visited cities in the world, with more than 20 million tourists annually.

At age 16, he was offered a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but it may have been withdrawn after Alpher had required meeting with an alumnus in Washington, D.C., with little explanation or clarification. [4] 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 Russian-Ukrainian physicist George Gamow at the University, who subsequently took him on as his doctoral student. This was somewhat of a coup, as Gamow was a prominent Soviet defector and one of the luminaries on the GWU faculty. His first physics course was taught by Edward Teller, brought onto the GWU faculty in 1935 to give Gamow a peer on the faculty. Alpher provided much needed mathematical ability to support Gamow's theorizing. Gamow often gave talks across the world on "The Origin of the Elements", which was Alpher's original dissertation. Gamow continues to be credited with Alpher's work on nucleosynthesis. Alpher followed his dissertation immediately with the first prediction of the existence of "fossil" radiation from a hypothetical singularity—the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This was observationally confirmed by Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Labs using a horn radiotelescope. Further research has shown other observations made, but not interpreted cosmologically. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the observation in 1978. Ironically a group at Princeton was given credit for making a cosmological interpretation in an inflationary universe (Big Bang) in a companion publication in 1965 to Penzias and Wilson, which is incorrect.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology University in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Institute is a land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant university, with an urban campus that extends more than a mile alongside the Charles River. Founded in 1861 in response to the increasing industrialization of the United States, MIT adopted a European polytechnic university model and stressed laboratory instruction in applied science and engineering. It has since played a key role in the development of many aspects of modern science, engineering, mathematics, and technology, and is widely known for its innovation and academic strength, making it one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world.

George Washington University university in Washington, D.C.

The George Washington University is a private research university in Washington, D.C. It was chartered in 1821 by an act of the United States Congress.

Johns Hopkins University Private research university in Baltimore, Maryland

Johns Hopkins University is a private research university in Baltimore, Maryland. Founded in 1876, the university was named for its first benefactor, the American entrepreneur, abolitionist, and philanthropist Johns Hopkins. His $7 million bequest —of which half financed the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital—was the largest philanthropic gift in the history of the United States up to that time. Daniel Coit Gilman, who was inaugurated as the institution's first president on February 22, 1876, led the university to revolutionize higher education in the U.S. by integrating teaching and research. Adopting the concept of a graduate school from Germany's ancient Heidelberg University, Johns Hopkins University is considered the first research university in the United States. Over the course of several decades, the university has led all U.S. universities in annual research and development expenditures. In fiscal year 2016, Johns Hopkins spent nearly $2.5 billion on research.

While attending GWU, Alpher met Louise Ellen Simons, who was majoring in psychology at night school and working as a day secretary with the State Department. Nearly two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Alpher and Louise were married. At this time he had already done classified work for the U.S. Navy through the Carnegie Institution for nearly one and a half years. During a hiatus in his scientific work in early 1944, he did apply to the Navy for a commission, for which he was eligible. By this time he had done so much classified and secret work he was no longer subject to the draft (along with about 7,000 others), and prohibited from enlistment. That summer, he signed on to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to work on another classified project—a new magnetic-influence torpedo exploder. This was badly needed since the Mark 14 torpedo, which had a poorly tested exploder that had its magnetic component turned off by order of the Chief of Naval Operations in late 1943, was badly in need of replacement (V.S. Alpher, The Submarine Review, October, 2009).

Mark 14 torpedo

The Mark 14 torpedo was the United States Navy's standard submarine-launched anti-ship torpedo of World War II. This weapon was plagued with many problems which crippled its performance early in the war. It was supplemented by the Mark 18 electric torpedo in the last two years of the war. Nonetheless, the Mark 14 played a major role in the devastating blow U.S. Navy submarines dealt to the Japanese naval and merchant marine forces during the Pacific War.

Big Bang nucleosynthesis theory

Alpher's dissertation in 1948 dealt with a subject that came to be known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis. The Big Bang is a term coined initially in derision by Fred Hoyle on BBC Radio in 1950 to describe the cosmological model of the universe as expanding into its current state from a primordial condition of enormous density and temperature. Nucleosynthesis is the explanation of how more complex elements are created out of simple elements in the moments following the Big Bang. Right after the Big Bang, when the temperature was extremely high, if any nuclear particles, such as neutrons and protons, became bound together (being held together by the attractive nuclear force) they would be immediately broken apart by the high energy photons (quanta of light) present in high density. In other words, at this extremely high temperature, the photons' kinetic energy would overwhelm the binding energy of the strong nuclear force. For example, if a proton and a neutron became bound together (forming deuterium), it would be immediately broken apart by a high energy photon. However, as time progressed, the universe expanded and cooled and the average energy of the photons decreased. At some point, roughly one second after the Big Bang, the attractive force of nuclear attraction would begin to win out over the lower energy photons and neutrons and protons would begin to form stable deuterium nuclei. As the universe continued to expand and cool, additional nuclear particles would bind with these light nuclei, building up heavier elements such as helium, etc.

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.

Fred Hoyle British astronomer

Sir Fred Hoyle FRS was an English astronomer who formulated the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis. He also held controversial stances on other scientific matters—in particular his rejection of the "Big Bang" theory, a term coined by him on BBC radio, and his promotion of panspermia as the origin of life on Earth. He also wrote science fiction novels, short stories and radio plays, and co-authored twelve books with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle.

Nucleosynthesis is the process that creates new atomic nuclei from pre-existing nucleons. The first nuclei were formed about three minutes after the Big Bang, through the process called Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Seventeen minutes later the universe had cooled to a point at which these processes ended, so only the fastest and simplest reactions occurred, leaving our universe containing about 75% hydrogen, 24% helium, and traces of other elements such as lithium and the hydrogen isotope deuterium. The universe still has approximately the same composition today.

Alpher argued that the Big Bang would create hydrogen, helium and heavier elements in the correct proportions to explain their abundance in the early universe. Alpher and Gamow's theory originally proposed that all atomic nuclei are produced by the successive capture of neutrons, one mass unit at a time. However, later studies challenged the universality of the successive capture theory, since no element was found to have a stable isotope with an atomic mass of five or eight, hindering the production of elements beyond helium. 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 largely developed by Hans Bethe, William Fowler and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Bethe had been a last minute addition to Alpher's dissertation examining committee.

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.

William Alfred Fowler American nuclear physicist

William Alfred "Willy" Fowler was an American nuclear physicist, later astrophysicist, who, with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics. He is known for his theoretical and experimental research into nuclear reactions within stars and the energy elements produced in the process.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar American physicist

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar ; 19 October 1910 – 21 August 1995) was an Indian American astrophysicist who spent his professional life in the United States. He was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics with William A. Fowler for "...theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars". His mathematical treatment of stellar evolution yielded many of the current theoretical models of the later evolutionary stages of massive stars and black holes. The Chandrasekhar limit is named after him.

Since Alpher's dissertation was perceived to be ground-breaking, over 300 people attended the dissertation defense, including the press, and articles about his predictions and a Herblock cartoon appeared in major newspapers. This was quite unusual for a doctoral dissertation.

Later the same year, collaborating with Robert Herman, Alpher predicted the temperature of the residual radiation known as cosmic microwave background radiation resulting from the hypothesized Big Bang. [5] However, Alpher's predictions concerning the cosmic background radiation were more or less forgotten until they were rediscovered by Robert Dicke and Yakov Zel'dovich in the early 1960s. The existence of the cosmic background radiation and its temperature were measured experimentally in 1964 by two physicists working for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who were awarded the Nobel prize in physics for this work in 1978. [6]

Elements of Alpher's independent dissertation were first published on April 1, 1948 in the Physical Review with three authors: Alpher, Hans Bethe and Gamow. [7] Although his name appears on the paper, 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 author list Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, a pun on alpha, beta, gamma (α, β, γ), 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." Alpher worried that the humor engendered by Gamow may have obscured his own critical role in developing the theory. With the award of the 2005 National Medal of Science, Alpher's original work on nucleosynthesis and the cosmic microwave background radiation prediction was recognised. 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. [8] 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. [6] 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). Published as a trade book, it received little promotion or sales in the first edition.

He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986. [9] 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.

Later 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 there was working on problems of vehicle re-entry from space. During the late 1940s at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, he worked as a member of John van Allen's work group, studying cosmic rays with high altitude balloons. In 1955, both Alpher and Herman applied for positions at Iowa, where van Allen was now department chair, however, the salaries in academia were simply too low to support families. Alpher 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 without recognizing the cosmological significance. [10]

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. All of his degrees were achieved by studying 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,

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. [11]

Ralph Alpher told his son Victor in 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." Up to that time, he 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.[ citation needed ]

Personal life and views

Despite being raised in a Jewish family, he later on became an agnostic and considered himself to be a humanist. [12]

See also

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References

  1. "Ralph Alpher, 86, Expert in Work on the Big Bang, Dies". NY Times. 2007.
  2. Obituary in the Albany (NY) Times-Union
  3. source: Dr. Victor S. Alpher[ citation needed ]
  4. personal communication from Dr. Victor S. Alpher. Alpher himself believed that the scholarship was withdrawn due to the anti-Semitism widely prevalent in American academic institutions at the time. In an article published in Discover magazine, Joseph D'Agnese wrote 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.D'Agnese
  5. Gamow, G. (1948). "The Origin of Elements and the Separation of Galaxies". Phys. Rev. 74 (4): 505–6. Bibcode:1948PhRv...74..505G. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.74.505.2.
    Gamow, G. (30 October 1948). "The Evolution of the Universe". Nature. 162 (4122): 680–2. Bibcode:1948Natur.162..680G. doi:10.1038/162680a0. PMID   18893719.
    Alpher, R.A. (1948). "A Neutron-Capture Theory of the Formation and Relative Abundance of the Elements". Phys. Rev. 74 (11): 1577–89. Bibcode:1948PhRv...74.1577A. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.74.1577. Alpher and Herman first estimated the temperature of the cosmic microwave background as 5° K, and two years later they re-estimated it as 28° K.
  6. 1 2 Erica Westly (October 6, 2008). "No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs". Scientific American.
  7. Alpher, R.A.; Bethe, H.; Gamow, G. (1948). "The Origin of Chemical Elements". Phys. Rev. 73 (7): 803–4. Bibcode:1948PhRv...73..803A. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.73.803.
  8. "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences . Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  9. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences . Retrieved 15 April 2011.
  10. Alpher & Herman, "Genesis of the Big Bang", Oxford Press, 2001.
  11. D'Agnese, J. (July 1999). "The Last Big Bang Man Left Standing". Discover: 61–67.
  12. Alpher, Ralph A. "Cosmology and Humanism" (PDF). Humanism Today. 3: 15–27. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-09-29. This leads inevitably to my identifying philosophically as an agnostic and a humanist, and explains my temerity in sharing my views with you.