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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Alpher’

Last week I reposted my blog about the prediction of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which I had originally written in April 2013. This month, July, marks the 50th anniversary of the first detection of the CMB, and I will blog about that historic discovery next week. But, in this blog, I wanted to show the original 1948 paper by Alpher and Hermann that predicted the CMB’s existence.

I learnt far more about the history of the CMB’s prediction whilst researching for my book on the CMB, which was published at the end of 2014 (follow this link to order a copy). In doing my research, I found out that many of the things I had been been told or had read about the prediction were wrong, so here I wanted to say a little bit more about what led up to the prediction.



My book "The Cosmic Microwave Background - how it changed our understanding of the Universe" is published by Springer and can be found by following this link.

My book “The Cosmic Microwave Background – how it changed our understanding of the Universe” is published by Springer and can be found by following this link.



Gamow did not predict the CMB

Many people either do not know of the 1940s prediction of the CMB, or they attribute its prediction to George Gamow. In fact, it was his research assistants Ralph Alpher and Robert Hermann who made the prediction, but as head of the group it is often Gamow who gets the credit.

Ralph Alpher had just finished his PhD on the origin of the elements, and after the publication of the famous Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper (see my blog here about that), Gamow started writing a series of papers on the nature of the early Universe. One of these papers was entitled “The Evolution of the Universe”, and it appeared in Nature magazine on the 30th of October 1948 (Nature 1948, volume 162, pages 680-682) – here is a link to the paper.



Gamow's 1948 paper in Nature was entitled "The Evolution of the Elements".

Gamow’s October 1948 paper in Nature was entitled “The Evolution of the Elements”.



Although a man of huge intellect and inventiveness, Gamow was often sloppy on mathematical detail. Alpher and Hermann spotted an error in some of Gamow’s calculations on the matter-density, and so wrote a short letter to Nature magazine to correct these mistakes. The letter is entitled “Evolution of the Universe”, nearly the same title as Gamow’s paper, but with no “The” at the start. The letter is dated 25 October 1948. It appeared in Nature magazine on the 13th of November 1948 (Nature 1948, volume 162, pages 774-775) – here is a link to the paper.

Here is the paper in its entirety (it is short!), and I have highlighted the part which refers to a relic radiation from the early Universe, what would become known as the cosmic microwave background.



The original paper (letter) by Alpher and Hermann which makes the first prediction of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). It was published in Nature magazine on the 13th of November 1948.

The original paper (letter) by Alpher and Hermann which makes the first prediction of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). It was published in Nature magazine on the 13th of November 1948.



As you can see, the prediction is not the main part of the paper, it just forms two sentences!

Next week, I will blog about the accidental discovery of the CMB by Penzias and Wilson, which was published 50 years ago to this month (July).

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In this blog I described the first results from the Planck satellite, which is studying the Cosmic Microwave Background in greater detail than we have ever done before. But, what exactly is the Cosmic Microwave Background? Where does it come from? How was it produced?

The origin of the elements

In 1929 Edwin Hubble published evidence that the speed with which galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way was directly related to their distance from us. Although Hubble himself never explicity stated it, this is clear evidence that the Universe is expanding. If the Universe is expanding, then of course one would expect it to have been smaller in the past.

In the 1940s the Russian-American physicist George Gamow started thinking about what the early Universe would have been like. He worked on two related theories, the first that the elements would have been created in the early Universe. The second related to the fact that a smaller, denser Universe would also have been hotter in the past.

In 1948, with his PhD student Ralph Alpher, the two published a paper titled “The Origin of Chemical Elements“. As a joke, Gamow decided to add the well-known physicist Hans Bethe’s name to the paper, so that it could be called “Alpher, Bethe, Gamow” (alpha,beta, gamma – geddit? 🙂 ).


George Gamow, who worked with his PhD student Ralph Alpher on the primordial nucleosynthesis theory.

George Gamow, who worked with his PhD student Ralph Alpher on the primordial nucleosynthesis theory.


Ralph Alpher, who was George Gamow's PhD student at the time of writing the paper.

Ralph Alpher, who was George Gamow’s PhD student at the time of writing the paper.


Hans Bethe, who played no part in writing the paper.

Hans Bethe, who played no part in writing the paper.


The famous "Alpha, Bethe, Gamow" paper from Physical Review 1948

The famous “Alpha, Bethe, Gamow” paper from Physical Review 1948


Although the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper was groundbreaking, it was wrong in some of its details. It suggested that all the elements were created in the hot, early Universe. We now think (know?) this is not the case. Only hydrogen and helium were created in the early Universe, the other elements have all been created inside stars, something Sir Fred Hoyle worked out with co-workers in the 1950s.

Alpher and Herman’s paper on the Cosmic Microwave Background


In a related paper, Alpher and Robert Herman, who was working as a post-doctoral research assistant for Gamow, calculated that the early Universe would have been a hot opaque plasma (ionised gas), and would thus have radiated like a black body. However, this radiation would not have been able to travel through the plasma as the photons would scatter of the free electrons.


The abstract of the paper by Alpher and Hermann, which predicts a cosmic microwave background at a temperature of 5K (5 degrees above absolute zero).

The abstract of the paper by Alpher and Herman, which predicts a cosmic microwave background at a temperature of 5K (5 degrees above absolute zero).


Gamow's article in Nature, which summarises the work on the origin of the elements and of the existence of a cosmic microwave background

Gamow’s article in Nature, which summarises the work on the origin of the elements and of the existence of a cosmic microwave background


But, as the Universe expanded and cooled the plasma would become a neutral gas, in that the electrons would combine with the nuclei to produce neutral atoms, allowing the photons to travel unimpeded. They calculated that these photons, which would be able to thence travel unimpeded, would now be at a characteristic black-body temperature of 5K due to the expansion of the Universe. This in the microwave part of the spectrum, hence the name Cosmic Microwave Background.

Our current understanding is pretty much what was derived in this 1948 paper, with a few refinements. Perversely, the moment the plasma became a neutral gas, which we believe to be when the Universe was about 350,000 years old, is referred to as “re-combination”, but as I tell my students, the electrons were combing with the nuclei for the first time. This is when the fog of the early Universe lifted and is the earliest radiation we can see.

In a separate blog on the history of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) I will discuss how

  1. the CMB was accidentally discovered in 1964
  2. Gamow’s work was ignored, only to be worked out again in the early 1960s


Update

You can read far more about the prediction of the CMB, and its accidental discovery, in my new book, “The Cosmic Microwave Background – How it changed our understanding of the Universe”.



My book "The Cosmic Microwave Background - how it changed our understanding of the Universe" is published by Springer and can be found by following this link.

My book “The Cosmic Microwave Background – how it changed our understanding of the Universe” is published by Springer and can be found by following this link.



The book can be found on the Springer website here, and on the Amazon website here.

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