Feb 05

The Big Bang and How We Came To Know It.

Proven By Science3 comments • 295 views

The Big Bang and How We Came To Know It.

The newest book by Simon Singh, simply entitled “Big Bang”, has garnered many fantastic reviews (for example, Scientific American, Toronto Globe and Mail, Guardian). I haven’t seen it yet, but I have been a fan of Singh’s ever since receiving his book “Fermat’s Enigma” as a gift many years ago. Among all the wild (and often poorly written) hoopla surrounding the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, Singh wrote a book that a) didn’t talk down to you like you were an idiot, b) featured a enthusiastic, narrative style that read more like a slow-building detective novel than a book about math, and c) delved deeply into the personalities of the main characters, even going so far as to reconstruct email conversations between the principles in order to build the drama and excitement in their own words.

Furthermore, this article implies that Singh’s book contains some long overdue popular credit for Ralph Alpher. One could say that Alpher is to 20th century physics what Rosalind Franklin is to 20th century biology — and then some. Franklin may have taken the X-Ray photographs of DNA, but she couldn’t properly interpret her own data. Alpher not only provided theoretical justification for the Big Bang (a term coined by his Ph.D. supervisor George Gamow), but he also wrote papers about how to experimentally verify his theories. That experiment was eventually performed in 1965, with the detection of the cosmic background radiation by Penzias and Wilson. Both of them were unaware that Alpher, along with Gamow and Robert Herman, had predicted the existence of this radiation seventeen years earlier. They even received the 1978 Nobel Prize for their work. Alpher and his collaborators got nothing.

For further reading, this classic Discover article recounts Alpher’s life and work in more detail. And presumably, so does Simon Singh’s new book.


  1. 1
    Victor S. Alpher, Ph.D. on 26 Sep 2008 #

    The term “Big Bang” was actually coined by Fred Hoyle, whose opposing “Steady State” theory held the exansionist theory of the universe in some derision. Hoyle held his views despite experimental and observational evidence supporting the opposite view (the “Big Bang”), which is now generally supported, until his death in the early 21st century. Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn would call this “clinging to an old paradigm.” Ralph A. Alpher received the National Medal of Science in 2005. Many of his most important contributions to Cosmology were singular, not collaborations, and many Nobel Laureates have publicly stated that they believe he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize during his lifetime for his insights.

  2. 2
    Victor S. Alpher, Ph.D. on 26 Sep 2008 #

    The so-called “classic” Discover article contains a comment that is quite uncharacteristic of my father, that the was somehow bitter about how he was treated regarding the Nobel. He was not, although he was very eager to see each year’s announcement of the Physics prize. In 1978 and 2006 a total of 4 scientists received Nobels for observations related to the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Many of his “collaborators” worked with him after his singular contributions, or in the case of Gamow, attached his name (and Hans Bethe’s) due to their his prerogative as dissertation advisor. This his hardly uncommon in science, often leading findings to be misattributed. Also, unlike Frankly, Ralph Alpher knew exactly what he was doing and what it meant. It was a different scienctist who in the early 1940s may have observed the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiaton and not known what he saw. I will write about this in an upcoming article in the journal “Radiations.”

  3. 3
    Barry on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Victor, I am just reading your comments now, two years later. Thank you for taking the time to post and for your clarifications. Actually, my impression of Ralph Apher all along (from the article) was that he was very much at peace with how the Nobel committee had treated him. Disappointed, certainly, but not bitter. The reporter projected some of his own personal feelings onto the story, no doubt. Anyway, to me the article is “classic” not least because I remembered it so well even years after it was published.

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