1948 Activity: Ralph Alpher and the Issue of Intellectual Credit


We all like to receive credit for our accomplishments. It certainly feels good when friends and colleagues recognize our good work, and we feel troubled when credit for our ideas is overlooked, or worse, given to someone else. Intellectual credit is especially important for scientists because it is the basis not only for respect and stature within their community, but also for advancement at universities and research laboratories. 
Failure to recognize Ralph Alpher’s contributions to the Big Bang theory is considered by many to be a serious injustice. The problem began when his doctoral thesis was published in 1948 with three authors: Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow.  As Alpher’s thesis advisor Gamow certainly deserved to be included.  However, Gamow insisted on including the name of Hans Bethe as second author.  Although Bethe did not do any of the work reported in the paper, he was famous for discovering the process by which stars shine.  More important Gamow thought it amusing that the three authors names sounded so much like the first three letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, and gamma).  The paper turned out to be a famous landmark in the history of cosmology, but because Alpher was a student, credit for the work has largely gone to the senior authors.
In recent years Ralph Alpher has been recognized for establishing two pillars of Big Bang theory.  First, he solved the challenging problem of how hydrogen and helium must have been produced in the rapidly changing conditions of the first few minutes of the universe.  His result coincided almost perfectly with the observed abundance of those two elements.  Second, he predicted that if there were a Big Bang, it would produce an observable signal in the microwave band, a prediction that was later verified, swinging the weight of the scientific establishment firmly in the direction of the Big Bang. 
A Scientific American article “No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs,” noted that despite his accomplishments Alpher was passed over by the Nobel Commission in 1978, and again in 2006, when awards were given to scientists who confirmed Alpher’s prediction of the microwave background; but Alpher himself was not included. In 2007, a few weeks before he died, Alpher was finally honored for his work in cosmology by the National Medal of Science.  (The Scientific American article is available online at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=10-nobel-snubs.)
Ralph Alpher’s life experience, painful though it must have been, can serve a valuable function today as stimulus for conversation with colleagues, family, or friends.  Have you had similar experiences in your own life?  How about your field of work?  Are the Nobel Prizes a good thing for science by honoring important accomplishments? Or do they cause more harm than good by ignoring the many thousands of workers whose contributions are unrecognized? What is your opinion?