Big Bang Theorist Dies
AUSTIN, Texas, Sept. 6, 2007 -- Ralph A. Alpher, 86, whose PhD dissertation on the Big Bang theory in 1948 brought into being the scientific theory of the origin of the universe, died Aug. 12 after a long illness.
A long-time resident of the Albany, N.Y., Capital District area, Alpher was initially ridiculed and went largely unrecognized, until relatively recently, for his discovery that the universe occurred 14 billion years ago with a superhot explosion.
Alpher had just received the National Medal of Science Award from President Bush on July 27 for his work on nucleosynthesis, the development of a model of the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe, and his prediction of the Cosmic Background Radiation -- the existence of which was confirmed through observation in 1964 by Drs. Penzias and Wilson of Bell Telephone Labs in N.J. According to Alpher's obituary, his son, Victor S. Alpher of Austin, Texas -- where Ralph was residing -- accepted the award for him.
An announcement by Union College in Schenectady, where he was a professor emeritus, said his health had been failing since he broke his hip in February.
Alpher was a physicist with the GE Corporate Research and Development Center in Schenectady from 1955 through 1987. From 1987 through 2004, he was distinguished research professor of astronomy and physics at Union College in Schenectady, simultaneously serving as director of the Dudley Observatory there. He was also sepresident of the board of the region's public TV station, WMHT-TV, for many years. Since Feb. 3, 2004, Alpher has been distinguished research professor of physics and astronomy Emeritus of Union College and University in Schenectady.
Alpher's seminal paper, "Formation of the Chemical Elements," appeared in the journal Nature on April 1, 1948. "It was based on his dissertation, which was attended by 300 people, including press, and resulted in a Herblock cartoon [a cartoon created by Pulitzer-prize winning and legendary political cartoonist Herb Block] and faculty in full academic regalia -- very unusual for such an event," his obituary said.
For his groundbreaking work on the Big Bang theory, he eventually received awards from the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, the National Academy of Sciences and the Belgian Academy of Sciences, and the National Medal of Science. NASA has grouped the works of Ralph A. Alpher and Robert A. Herman along with those of Albert Einstein, Penzias and Wilson, and other important figures in cosmology of the 20th century. His original predictions of the Cosmic Background Radiation were confirmed by observations made in 1964, and he currently has writing on the "pre"-Big Bang under review. NASA, through the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) cosmology project, further confirmed Alpher's and Robert A. Herman's work.
Alpher's wife, Louise, died in July 2004. He is survived by his son and a daughter, Harriet Lebetkin of Danbury, Conn.; and grandchildren. Services were held in Albany.
Donations in Alpher's memory may be sent to the National Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology of the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org), the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation or the American Institute of Physics Education Div. to support science fellowships and grants at the undergraduate and graduate level (www.aip.org).
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