Alpher, Ralph A. and Herman, Robert. "Reflections on Early ‘Big Bang' Cosmology," Physics

 

Alpher, Ralph A. and Herman, Robert. "Reflections on Early ‘Big Bang' Cosmology," Physics
Today, August, 1988, pp. 24-34.

Here are two physicists rewriting professional history of the Big Bang theory in physics. Their
story is one of frustration: they were ignored and misrepresented in official histories and
textbooks. Here, finally, they are letting it all hang out. They are showing their anger and
detailing why they were angry when so-and-so misrepresented their data or when such-and-such
a text failed to include any references to them. They even provide some reasons as to why they
were ignored: 1) their work was identified with Gamow who, for various reasons has been
ignored by the profession; 2) their theory conflicted with the steady-state predilections of the
profession; 3) they were both very young and could be overlooked without professional reaction;
4) their work was done in an industrial rather than an academic setting; 5) cosmology was not a
major topic for concern in physics at that time. But then the Nobel prize was awarded in 1978 for
work in this area and the prize did not go to them. Here they are able to fashion a tale of it all.
The hardships of those years are avenged, but kindly.

Perhaps the most important part of this paper is its appreciation of the fact that recognition does
matter. Alpher and Herman call upon historians and sociologists to explain the significant facts
of selective history. They would like some understanding of the processes at work in recognizing
and in failing to recognize significant contributions.

These authors appreciate that physics has its professionally accepted myths, its stories, its
images, which pass for history but which are not historically correct. That is an insight which is
not developed in this paper.

Elsewhere in this file there has been much criticism of the social control mechanisms of science,
those touted devices which supposedly keep science clean, keep cheating to a minimum. But to
extend Broad and Wade's argument that the control mechanisms do not work, the implication
here is that the failure of the mechanisms to work means that not only do incompetents not get
eliminated from science but that incompetence does not get eliminated.

This is an important article. In it, physicists are questioning the organization of physics and
asking how such errors as happened to them could have happened. Implicitly, they seek to
understand the consequences of professional organization and the costs of that organization.
They are the principals in a noteworthy example of contributions to science being ignored
professionally. There should be more on this.