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Ralph A. Alpher, Georg Antonovich Gamow, and the Prediction of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

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Ralph A. Alpher, Georg Antonovich Gamow,
and the Prediction of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

Victor S. Alpher, Ph.D.


is awarded by




Ralph A. Alpher

For his unprecedented work in the areas

of nucleosynthesis, for the prediction that the universe expansion

leaves behind background radiation, and for providing

the model for the Big Bang theory.

(National Medal of Science citation, 2005)

Why is this CMBR History Necessary?
This brief history of one phase of early work on the Big Bang has been made necessary as a result of flagrant and repeated errors in the international literature concerning the independent contributions of my father, Ralph A. Alpher, to the development of the Big Bang theory during the 20th and 21st centuries. George A. Gamow (Г. А. Гамов) was Ralph A. Alpher's thesis advisor during the 1940s at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. (Gamow's friends often called him “Joe” – an English nickname for Joseph, which in Russian is pronounced Джо). My father's independent work is often credited to the well known Russian-Soviet physicist.

Communication about Cosmology from the American and Western-European scientific community and the Soviet scientific community has long been strained. It became more so after Gamow left the Soviet Union permanently after a year in France, in 1934 (Gamow, 1970) . He settled in as a Professor of Physics at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. George Gamow became very well known in the United States. The country was particularly enamored with physics and physicists following World War II and the detonation of the atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gamow also wrote a series of popular books on physics and nuclear science (creating a quizzical figure known as “Mr. Tompkins”) that had an important influence on a new generation of scientists.

Gamow wrote of taking a course in Relativity from A. Friedmann (Фридман; his name has been translated with two “n”s; this is a convention in translation from Russian to English). However, because of Friedmann's untimely and early death in 1924, Gamow finished his doctoral-level work with Professor Kruitkov. His experience with Kruitkov did not live up to his expectations and dreams of working on relativistic astrophysics with Friedmann (Gamow, 1970, p. 44). Many cosmologists trace the beginning of the idea of an expanding universe to Friedmann (Alpher & Herman, 2001).

Alpher, Gamow, and the CMBR Prediction

I, Victor S. Alpher, am the son of Ralph A. Alpher, and knew two of the three major figures in the development of Cosmology and Astrophysics in the middle of the 20th century very well (R. Alpher and Robert C. Herman). Consequently, I because intimately familiar with the work of Alpher, Herman, and Gamow from the point at which I was able to read. By the time the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR; sometimes using the acronyms CMB, CBR) was accidentally measured by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at the Bell Telephone Laboratory (Holmdel, New Jersey, U.S.A.) in 1964, I was already aware of its enormous significance. This was heralded in a paper in the Astrophysical Journal in 1965 (but not by Penzias and Wilson, who only reported the observation) that interpreted the 1080 Mc/s measurement as evidence of relict “Big Bang” microwave black-body radiation (CMBR).

During my own scientific training, I became especially of the importance of scholarship in the progress of science. Many would probably argue my position to be politically naïve, particularly considering recent revelations concerning the validity of “man-made” global warming (Biello, 2009).

No doubt my father was one who made me particularly sensitive to this issue. The reason for this is that his independent scientific work was often been misattributed to other scientists – to Gamow, to Herman, to Hans Bethe. My father became keenly aware that Gamow’s reputation could eclipse his own work, that of a mere graduate student (V. S. Alpher, 2009). Ralph Alpher referred to a well-known article in the weekly journal Science concerning this “Matthew effect” (Merton, 1968) from which it is drawn. R. Alpher and Bob Herman often sought reasons for the misattribution of their collaborative work to Gamow. They had too much respect for Gamow, however, to

challenge him directly about his neglect of their work in his citations.

Many errors in the recent Russian literature can be traced to the work of A. D. Chernin (1994, 1995) and I. Tkachev at CERN. Chernin (Tropp, Frenkel, & Chernin, 1993) even wrote that Robert C. Herman was one of Gamow's graduate students! In fact, Herman's doctorate was earned under H.P. Robertson at Princeton University in 1940. By the time he began collaborative work with Alpher and Gamow in 1948, he was eight years post-doctoral. However, the misattributions and lack of citation is not limited to the Russian literature (e.g. Kirilova & Chizhov, 1998).

All three men knew each other during World War II – each worked on Secret military ordnance work for the U.S. Navy (variously at the Naval Research Laboratory, the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, or the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University in on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland (Alpher, 2008a). Albert Einstein also worked on contract to the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance and High Explosives as did Gamow. Although Einstein lived in Princeton, New Jersey, he was regularly briefed in person by Gamow who carried materials by train from Washington to Princeton and back.

A rather more astounding attribution concerning Ralph A. Alpher was repeated by Bamberg (2002). In referring to a well-known paper by Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow (1948) he refers to an article by Halmos (1957) and states that Halmos' asserted that the “fictitious 'first author'” was invented by his famous co-authors (Bamberg, 2002, p. 1429; see also Clark, 2005). The implication is the Robert C. Herman and George A. Gamow would have invented “Ralph A. Alpher” for some purpose.

I could produce my father's birth certificate – but this is most amusing. He was extensively vetted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI; internal police investigation force which investigates the backgrounds and associates of persons who will be exposed to information vital to national security) to retain his Q clearance (the highest level of security clearance) in 1952. In fact, for much of his early career, R. Alpher had a higher security clearance than did Gamow.

Professor Tkachev has continued to perpetuate the erroneous attribution of the theoretical prediction of the CMBR at about 5K to Prof. Gamow (Tkachev, 2004; Tinyakov & Tkachev, 2006 ). This is incorrect. The prediction was first made by Ralph A. Alpher and Robert C. Herman in 1948 (Alpher & Herman, 1948, 1949); the prediction was based upon Ralph A. Alpher’s work on nucleosynthesis, conducted while he was one of Gamow’s graduate students (Alpher, 2009).

George A. Gamow, who was well known for making practical jokes (грубая шутка), included winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize Hans Bethe on R. Alpher's dissertation defense committee (as well as including his name on the major publication about the origin of the elements and the neutron-capture theory. Consequently, more than 300 persons, including representatives of the national and international press, attended Ralph A. Alpher's public defense of his dissertation on the formation of the chemical elements in a hot, dense “Big Bang.”

Professor Gamow did help to complicate the history with a series of subsequent estimations of the CMBR. These often did not show the equations by which he arrived at his proposed temperature. In some cases, he did not refer to the work of Alpher, and of Alpher and Herman. Following the observation of the CMBR by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (1965), the interpretation by Dicke, Peebles, Roll, and Wilkinson (1965) gave no credit to Alpher, Herman, or Gamow's years of work on the problem of the early expanding Universe. They also did not provide references to other observations, many of which were made by Soviet physicists and radioastronomers (Novikov, 1984; Trimble, 2006).

Gamow did try to rectify the situation. After the “discovery” of the CMBR by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (Penzias and Wilson, 1965), which received international recognition. Gamow published a paper shortly before his death in collaboration with Alpher and Herman (Alpher, Gamow, & Herman, 1967). What could this be be too little, too late? Gamow’s numerous publications during the 1950s and 1960s are open to a variety of interpretations. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, they

Caused the umbra of his professional and personal shadow to block out historical memory in the physics community so that someone receiving their doctorate in the 1960s could say they were unaware of Ralph Alpher’s pioneering work. Others would later make light of it, although the members of the National Academy of Sciences (Neil deGrasse Tyson, personal communication 26 July 2007) made certain his work was not forgotten (see the citation at the beginning of this paper).

What is the Importance of History?

We know that some would argue that these details of the historical record of scholarship in science are of interest – but only to historians of science. I would disagree, because they are critical to the trust the public places in the integrity of science, its methods, and its hypotheses. Today, such debate is closely tied to our understanding of climatology; the methods of research on climate going back tens of thousands of years are coming under close scrutiny (Monckton, 2008). They should be. The methods of research on cosmology and particle astrophysics are no doubt of equal importance (Alpher, 2010).

“Forgetting” earlier work on the CMBR is not a problem unique to Russian or Soviet cosmology and astrophysics. B. Parker noted this in his 1993 work: “Dicke admitted later that it was an oversight. He had completely forgotten about Gamow and his students’ work. Furthermore, Peebles, in making his calculation, ahd not checked the literature. He just assumed that no one had worked on the problem” (Parker, 1993, pp. 120-121). Russian scientists will probably find this degree of lassitude even among American scientists somewhat disheartening. However, Parker’s findings are consistent with the oral histories available from the Neils Bohr Library of the American Institute of Physics (see Alpher, 2010).


Figure 1. Photograph of Ralph A. Alpher, Ph.D., approximately 1955.

Космологи Часто Ошибаются Но Никогда Не Сомневаются

Cosmologists are Often Wrong but Never in Doubt

Lev Landau

(a facsimile Ralph A. Alpher kept tacked to a bulletin board in his office)


Alpher, V.S. (2008a). Ralph Asher Alpher – Before the Big Bang. Radiations, 14(1), 5- 10.

Alpher, V.S. (2008b). Ralph A. Alpher's Early Career: What Kind of Physicists Were

They? Radiations, 14(2), 6-14.

Alpher, V.S. (2009). The History of Cosmology as I Have Lived It. Radiations, 15(1),


Alpher, V.S. (2010). Measurement of the CMBR: Its Early History. Manuscript under


Alpher, R.A., & R.C. Herman. (1948). Evolution of the Universe. Nature, 162, 774-


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Universe. Physical Review, 75, 1089-1095.

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Physical Review, 73(7), 803-804.

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Formation of Protogalaxies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

58, 2179-2186.

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Balaram, P. (2002). The Mores of Publishing in Science (Editorial). Current Science 83(12), 1429-1430.

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American (December 4, 2009 online edition,

article.cfm?id=scientists-respond-to-climategate-controversy; retrieved 11

December 2009).

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37(8), 813-820.

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Physics and Society, July 2008. Viscount Christopher Monckton was an advisor

to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; however, in 2009 he was denied entrance

to a committee hearing at the United States Congress, to which he had been

by Republican (minority party) members, at which he would have had the

opportunity to present views on global trends in climate, currently in political

disfavor. His invitation was likely blocked by the majority because of the

presence of former U.S. Vice President Albert Gore, an attorney and advocate

of the “global warming” political agenda.

200807/monckton.cfm Retrieved 13 December 2009.

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1080 Mc/s. Astrophysical Journal, 142, 419-420. This paper assures that it is not

sheer quantity of work, or knowledge of one’s field (neither were cosmologists) that might lead to a Nobel Prize in Physics, which was conferred on Penzias and Wilson in 1978. Their measurement was interpreted by Dicke et. al (1965, above).

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