Dr. Ralph Alpher, a physicist who conducted critical research that lead to the Big Bang theory while at the fledgling Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., has received the National Medal of Science—the nation's highest science honor—for his unprecedented work in nucleosynthesis, the prediction that universe expansion leaves radiation, and the model for the Big Bang theory.
"Alpher is a hero to staff at the Applied Physics Laboratory," said Dr. John Sommerer, APL's director of Science and Technology and Chief Technology Officer. "Our institution is known for focusing on ‘real-world' problems, rather than science per se. But when you're talking about the creation of the universe, it doesn't get more ‘real' than that. We're thrilled that Alpher is receiving this long overdue recognition for understanding the origin of everything."
Dr. Alpher, of the Dudley Observatory in Schenectady, N.Y., worked at the Lab from 1945 to 1955. In the beginning, he worked alongside Dr. Merle Tuve, the first director of APL, under "Section T" (for Tuve) of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C. Section T was later to become the Applied Physics Laboratory. At night he pursued his doctorate in physics at The George Washington University.
In 1946, Dr. Alpher's thesis advisor, Dr. George Gamow, proposed that a neutron agglomeration process was responsible for the formation of all the elements and that the time of formation was extremely short. Dr. Alpher's graduate thesis, "On the Origin and Relative Abundance of the Elements," confirmed Dr. Gamow's belief. In 1948, Dr. Alpher, Dr. Gamow and Dr. Hans Bethe (in absentia) co-authored a paper that formulated the scientific and mathematical foundation for the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
On March 18, 1949, on the weekly television show, "The Johns Hopkins Science Review," telecast from WMAR-TV in Baltimore, Dr. Alpher explained his theory: About 3 billion years ago, after the universe began to expand, conditions were so hot that atoms boiled down to their elementary particles. After about four minutes of expansion, the universe cooled down to 1,000 million degrees, and protons formed from the radioactivity of neutrons, then stuck with the neutrons to form heavy hydrogen.
"This started the process of element building," he said. "The heavy hydrogen atoms in turn captured neutrons to form still heavier hydrogen; the next successive capture led to helium, and so on up through the heaviest elements such as uranium. This theory fits the observed relative abundance data as we see here. The variation in relative abundance from the light to the heavy elements is due to the fact that the ability of atoms to capture neutrons varies from light to heavy elements in a systematic way."
Dr. Alpher's tremendous insight was not fully appreciated until the accidental discovery of the predicted microwave background radiation by two radio astronomers in 1964. Credit for the Big Bang theory, including a Nobel Prize, has generally gone to these astronomers, bypassing Dr. Alpher and his colleagues. Long-overdue recognition came on May 30, 2007, when President George W. Bush named Dr. Alpher a 2005 recipient of the National Medal of Science.
Dr. Alpher's son, Dr. Victor S. Alpher, will accept the award on his father's behalf at a White House ceremony on July 27, 2007.