|August 13, 2007|
Big Bang pioneer Ralph Alpher dies following a long illness
Ralph Alpher, 2006
Ralph Alpher, a distinguished research professor of physics and astronomy and a pioneering architect of the Big Bang model for the origin of the universe, died Sunday, Aug. 12, in Austin, Texas. He was 86.
Alpher taught at Union from 1986 to 2004 and was director of the Dudley Observatory. He also spent more than 30 years at the General Electric Research and Development Center in Niskayuna.
In 1948, as a young doctoral student, he wrote the first mathematical model for the creation of the universe and predicted the discovery of cosmic background radiation that proves the Big Bang theory.
Hundreds of people showed up at George Washington University for his dissertation defense, but the work of Alpher and his colleagues went largely unrecognized. In 1965, two radio astronomers in New Jersey who were tuning their equipment stumbled on proof of Alpher’s background radiation and were eventually awarded the Nobel Prize.
In 2004, when a student at Emory University doing research for "Background", her one-act play about Alpher’s life, asked if he would have done anything differently, Alpher replied, “I would have worked harder to get the credit I deserved.”
While the Nobel Prize eluded Alpher, he collected a host of other prestigious awards and honors. Earlier this year, President Bush announced that Alpher had been awarded the National Medal of Science, which is administered by the National Science Foundation and is the highest honor for science.
Alpher had been in failing health since falling and breaking his hip in February. When a nurse told him of the honor, he managed a smile, his son Victor recalled. Victor attended a ceremony at the White House July 27 to receive his father’s medal, for which the citation reads in part:
“For his unprecedented work in the areas of nucleosynthesis, for the prediction that universe expansion leaves behind background radiation, and for providing the model for the Big Bang theory.”
“I was very sad he couldn’t receive it himself,” said Victor, a retired clinical neuropsychologist who lives in Austin. “This was his crowning achievement of a long and distinguished career.”
Victor Alpher accepts the National Medal of Science award on behalf of his father, Ralph at a recent White House ceremony.
After the ceremony, Victor met several Nobel laureates who praised his father’s work, including Robert Wilson, who along with Arno Penzias, confirmed Alpher’s predictions while at Bell Telephone Labs and was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978.
A memorial service for Alpher will be 1 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16, at Levine Memorial Chapel, 649 Washington Ave., Albany.
In addition to his son, Alpher is survived by a daughter, Harriet Lebetkin of Danbury, Conn. and two granddaughters. Alpher’s wife, Louise, died in 2004.
Memorial contributions can be made 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 (www.nationalmedals.org) or the American Institute of Physics Education Division to support science fellowships and grants at the undergraduate and graduate level (www.aip.org).