News your connection to The Boston Globe

Ralph A. Alpher, at 86; physicist published early theory on big bang

WASHINGTON -- Ralph Asher Alpher, 86, a physicist whose doctoral dissertation provided a feasible formula for the scientific idea of the big bang but whose work was forgotten until other scientists received the Nobel Prize for the same idea, died of respiratory failure Sunday at an acute-care facility in Austin, Texas.

Dr. Alpher was awarded the 2005 National Medal of Science last month for his 1948 prediction that, if the universe started with a big bang, as others had hypothesized, it would explain the varying abundances of elements in the universe. Months later, he and two colleagues figured out that a big bang would have released an echo that should still be present in the universe as radio waves.

"It had vast implications, but unfortunately it got very little attention," said Vera Rubin of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution. "It's a very complicated story. He and Bob Herman did something very early and very brilliant. There's really no other word for it; they were kind of forgotten."

When Dr. Alpher published his dissertation, the scientific establishment had not fully accepted the big bang hypothesis. When he published further theories that advanced his ideas, astronomers were unwilling to search for an echo of an event they were not convinced had happened.

Then, in 1964, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Telephone Laboratories accidentally detected a constant hiss when they pointed their radio receiver into space. About the same time, a Princeton University team proposed that there might be radio waves left over from the big bang, just as Dr. Alpher had proposed. Penzias and Wilson put the two ideas together, and their paper mesmerized the scientific world.

But Dr. Alpher's work was not cited.

"Was I hurt? Yes! How the hell did they think I'd feel?" he told Joseph D'Agnese in a July 1999 article in Discover magazine. "I was miffed at the time that they'd never even invited us down to see the damned radio telescope. It was silly to be annoyed, but I was."

For the next decade, Dr. Alpher and colleague Robert Herman wrote letters attempting to correct the record, with spotty success. But in 1978, Penzias and Wilson shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation.

Penzias credited Dr. Alpher and his colleagues in his Nobel laureate speech, but the stress of fighting for credit contributed to a heart attack Dr. Alpher suffered a month later.

A native Washingtonian, Dr. Alpher graduated from Roosevelt High School as a 16-year-old prodigy.

He enrolled in night classes at George Washington University and worked by day at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory and later at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on torpedo exploder devices and guided missiles. In 1943, he graduated from George Washington, where went on to earn a master's degree and doctorate in physics.

His thesis adviser, a brilliant Soviet defector named George Gamow, suggested that Dr. Alpher look at the beginning of time. The big bang, which had been proposed about 25 years earlier, was not widely accepted. But if a single atom had exploded and thrown out the matter that formed the universe, some physical evidence might remain, the scientists figured, and they should be able to calculate it.

His doctoral thesis said this: After the explosion, what remained would be radiation and other matter, which Dr. Alpher dubbed ylem. This cloud of neutrons decayed and formed protons, electrons, and neutrinos. As the universe cooled, the remaining neutrons, protons, and electrons combined to form all the chemical elements of which the physical world is composed. His calculations found 10 atoms of hydrogen for every one atom of helium, exactly the ratio observed by astronomers looking at the stars.

The idea was profound and exciting. But his thesis adviser had another twist to offer; he wanted to add renowned physicist Hans Bethe's name to the list of authors as a scientific pun: Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow would be the alpha, beta, and gamma of science. Bethe, who had nothing to do with the research, agreed.

Word spread of the major scientific breakthrough. Dr. Alpher's thesis defense drew 300 spectators to a George Washington University auditorium, including prominent scientists and the news media. Asked how long the whole process of primordial nucleosynthesis had taken, Dr. Alpher said about 300 seconds.

Within months, Dr. Alpher next published, with Herman, a paper that said radiation from the big bang should still be in the universe. But astronomers, skeptical of the big bang theory in general, did not believe it could be measured and would not pursue it.

Stymied by the lack of enthusiasm, Dr. Alpher left Johns Hopkins in 1955 to join General Electric. He joined the faculty at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1986. He retired in 2004.

Eventually, he did receive recognition, including the National Academy of Sciences's Henry Draper Medal in 1993.

His wife of 66 years, Louise Simons Alpher, died in 2004.

Dr. Alpher leaves two children, Victor of Austin and Harriet Lebetkin of Danbury, Conn., and two grandchildren.