Alpher, Ralph A. and Herman, Robert. Genesis of the Big Bang. New York: Oxford University
The Ralph Alpher story is complex and so I begin with a simple version of his tale. Here's one
from a recent publication (1) on the Nobel Prize:
Yet another way to miss a Nobel award is to beignored by the physics community. In 1946
George Gamow, the Russian physicist then teaching in the U.S., published some speculations on
the Big Bang. In 1948 his doctoral student Ralph Alpher wrote a dissertation that first set forth
the Big Bang theory in clear mathematical form and essential physics. Alpher's theory was
published in 1948, with Gamow's collaboration. It raised much interest, but radio astronomy
wasn't advanced enough to lend confirmation. Alpher kept publishing until 1955, then moved on
to other things. In 1968 the American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson
detected cosmic radiation background, and the data confirmed Alpher's prediction. But Alpher's
theory, despite his and Gamow's protests, was ignored. Penzias and Wilson, as well as some
leading cosmologists, claimed they had not read Alpher's several papers or else had forgotten
doing so. In 1978 Penzias and Wilson won shares of the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Alpher
should have been included (Gamow died in 1968). His theory explained the Penzias-Wilson
discovery, and had two decades' priority over later efforts. But Alpher was passed over in
silence. The co-founder of the Big Bang theory is not on the Nobel list. (pp. 192-193)
As a start then, Ralph Alpher, a Distinguished Professor of Physics at Union College, is one who
is a "false negative," one who should have won a prize but did not. To that extent, he may be a
good case in point of winning or losing. As members of this Listserver, we are interested in the
social process of either winning or of losing, of making it in the games of science. And making it
with a Nobel Prize is the biggest win of them all! But the Nobel committees, which award the
prizes each October and celebrate the formal ceremonies each December, are designed to mislead
the public into thinking that the awards are presented "absolutely" and as if from "on high." In
fact, however, winning or losing the award is a function of a socially charged situation in which a
small number of committeemen make politically charged decisions. THAT is that process which
is to be understood. The Ralph Alpher story is one which, perhaps, allows us to "let light in upon
this magic," this otherwise hidden history of the Nobel Prize. How do committees make their
selections? What factors do they take into consideration? What factors are important and which
are ignored? The question is: Does Alpher's story help us understand that process?
There is, too, the personal factor which ought to be of interest to us all: the social-psychological
factors which go into being a scientist and missing out. What is it like to miss out on getting the
prize? There are lots of stories told by winners of prizes including "I am a genius" and "This is
how I did it." But the also-rans have their stories to tell and, frankly, these tales by the also-rans
are much less likely filled with the non-informative idea of "genius" than the tales of the also-
rans. Perhaps in failure one can obtain a better picture of how the games of Nobel Prize winning
are played. Genius, one should realize, tells us little while failure may tell us more.
I have known that Professor Alpher was working on this book for years. We have spoken of it
many times. Professor Alpher was the first member of this Listserver and has been a friend for 20
years and more. I had thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that this book would be an extension of
his and Herman's article which appeared some years ago (2). In that article they try to answer the
question, How was it that our work of 1947-1955 was ignored by the Nobel people? And the
authors provide several answers to their rhetorical question including: 1) Professor George
Gamow was seen by the physics community as a popularizer rather than a sophisticated
theoretician making original contributions to cosmology; 2) their theory was in conflict with the
then popular view of a steady-state universe; 3) their work was in an esoteric area of physics
cosmology rather than in high energy physics which was the motif of the 40s, 50s and 60s; 4)
Alpher and Herman, in a sense, "left the field" when they went into industrial work, Alpher at
GE and Herman at GM, and their distance from the academic core of on-going physics had them
as outsiders; 5) then too, experimentalists had no means of testing the predictions of Alpher
regarding the existence of what is called today Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
(CMBR) so the predictions remained of theoretical interest alone (it should be noted that
evidence of CMBR could probably have been made in the very early 1950s but no one with the
skills required was confronted with the proper questions). These, then, were their explanations of
what went wrong on the way to Stockholm.
In that 1988 article (2), Alpher and Herman are very closed-mouthed as to their personal feelings
about being ignored. We interested outsiders of science are not made privy to the psychological
state of these also-rans. Those of us interested in the social psychology of science may infer that
the disappointment hurt a great deal. We might also credit the idea that their frustration probably
played a major part in the unhappiness of the two, Alpher and Herman, with the physics
community and we can appreciate that their morale was low and they felt it time to get out of
theory and into industry. We could even accept the proposition that the stress of being ignored
might have contributed to some psychosomatic illnesses the two suffered over the years: a bad or
broken heart, a nervous disposition, a cantankerousness, and so on. But on these points we are
left only with inferences as Alpher and Herman say so very little.
I had hoped that this book would provide more of the personal side of science but it does not.
This book is, as its title states clearly, a description of The Genesis of the Big Bang. It is not a
personal account of their science even though, as the Preface suggests, "this book...(is) a window
on the experiences of two collaborators in the critical areas of primordial nucleosynthesis and the
cosmic microwave background radiation." (p. viii) The personal contributions of Alpher and
Herman are to be found on pages 70-86, and 114-127 in a book which is 172 pages long and has
an Epilogue and a lengthy Appendix. On the other hand, what this book makes clear is that
Alpher and Herman did make very significant contributions to the Big Bang theory. They were
the first to detail the mathematics and physics of the theory. Their contributions were reported in
reputable, if not the most widely read, journals. Those predictions were clear and testable, even if
they were not tested by the community of experimentalists.
The experimentalists who first "discovered" the residual noise of the Big Bang, Arno Penzias and
Robert Wilson of Bell Laboratories were, themselves, horsing around with a "Big Horn"
belonging to Bell Labs rather than doing experimental work they toyed their way into a Nobel!
They had no idea what they had "found" and not a clue of an explanation for the "noise" their
instrument picked up. Penzias and Wilson went down the road from Bell Labs to Princeton
where a group of theorists explained their results to them. Penzias and Wilson wrote a brief piece
for Physics Review (1965, work done in 1963) and their discovery was judged to merit a Nobel
Penzias and Wilson were experimentalists and, perhaps, can be forgiven for not knowing the
theoretical literature on cosmology. The theorists at Princeton, on the other hand, claimed that
they were either unfamiliar with the work of Gamow, Alpher and Herman, they had not read it
or, later, they had forgotten it!
And the Nobel committee which awarded the prize in 1978, did it not know of the work of
Gamow and his students? The committee should have done its homework, should have been
familiar with Gamow, Alpher and Herman's works. What does one say? The committee did not
do its homework? The committee was composed of idiots? Or, forgiving, the committee was
composed of human beings quite capable of screwing things up? I only know that the co-
founders of the Big Bang theory never ware awarded the Nobel Prize which was rightfully theirs.
This was an awful blunder, a snafu of monumental proportions. What can explain it? Shall one
say that bureaucracy always screws up? O, more formally, that we are all trapped in the ‘Iron
Cage' of reason? Such explanations are not very satisfying.
Alpher and Herman (Gamow died in 1968) have had their contributions appreciated by some: the
COMB satellite, launched in late 1989, was sent up amid a joyous celebration of their
contributions as the American satellite was designed to refine the measurement of the
Background Radiation. That was appropriate and the military tried to do the festivities right by
having Alpher and Herman feted on this occasion.
If one tries to understand the Nobel committee, or if one tries to understand the physics
community, this much should be clear: studying Bob and Ralph does not make the Nobel
committee any more understandable. Therefore, it is the Nobel committee which is to be studied,
not Ralph and Bob; it is the Nobel committee, not Ralph and Bob, to be held accountable for the
non-award. Herman and Alpher are more or less irrelevant in understanding the committee. What
Ralph has to say may be of psychological importance concerning his work, but that work is not
informative about the committee's idiocy. The problem is that the committee's work is kept
secret and sociologists, historians and philosophers of science are kept in the dark. So is Ralph!
In an article which appeared in The American Scholar in 1985/86 (pp. 7-18) Jeremy Bernstein
suggests, by way of an explanation for all of this, that the Gamow, Alpher and Herman story
proves that science is conducted by human beings. I think, rather, that the proper conclusion is
that Nobel committees are made up of human beings and that carelessness, sloppiness, laziness,
and all the rest of it, are built into the committees' decision making.. There even may be a trace
of deception and dishonesty built in. Being worthy of a Nobel means, to a great extent, pleasing a
Nobel Committee and the work of Gamow and his students, for whatever reasons, did not do
In the summary of his book on the Nobel prizes, Feldman (1) notes that the list of honorees in the
sciences deserves applause; the Nobel committees have typically done a pretty good job, and then
he adds: "Precisely because high expectations have so consistently been satisfied here, any lapse
causes much disappointment. How could they have ignored Lise Meitner's role in discovering
nuclear fission, or Ralph Alpher, who cofounded the theory of the Big Bang, or Albert Schatz,
who codiscovered streptomycin?" (p. 357) That's it precisely: How could they? But they did and
they have and all we can do is shake our heads and collectively sigh at the stupidity of the thing.
Robert Alpher and Robert Herman have, in their latest book, presented readers with a very
thorough description of the latest cosmology and its development. Several additional points
should be noted: for one thing, Bob Herman has been dead since February, 1997, and the tedious
work on this manuscript getting the damn thing into print - devolved solely on Ralph Alpher.
Nonetheless, Ralph does not stint crediting his lifelong colleague as co-author. This is typical of
this lovely man. Second, in his report on the genesis of the Big Bang, the personal sorrows, the
travails of the pair, and the extreme disappointments of getting passed over by the system, all get
omitted. Perhaps that is appropriate for a physicist, even a great one. For to be able to write
tragedy to tell this story appropriately demands a dramatist and the drama of doing big science is
not the soul of this book nor is it the soul of Ralph Alpher. Physics is. Let us enjoy his book in
the sense in which he published it.
- - - - -
(1)Feldman, Burton. The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige. New
York: Arcade, 2000.
(2)Alpher, Ralph A. and Herman, Robert. "Reflections on Early ‘Big Bang' Cosmology,"
Physics Today, August, 1988, pp. 24-34.