This Day in World History
April 1, 1948
Scientists Propose Big Bang Theory
Poet T.S. Eliot might still be right — the world might end with a whimper. But on April 1, 1948, physicists George Gamow and Ralph Alpher first proposed the now prevailing idea of how the universe began — with a big bang.
Gamow worked closely in the 1930s and 1940s with Edward Teller to understand beta decay — a kind of nuclear decay that results in the loss of electrons — and to understand the makeup of red giant stars.
From this work, Gamow and Alpher — one of his students — developed the idea that the universe was highly compressed until a vast thermonuclear explosion occurred. The explosion released neutrons, protons, and electrons. As the universe cooled, it became possible for neutrons to combine with other neutrons or with protons to form chemical elements.
Gamow and Alpher published their findings in the journal Physical Review on April 1, 1948. The title of the paper — “The Origin of Chemical Elements” — suggests the link between cosmology and particle physics that the big-bang theory represents.
The paper’s authorship showed a bit of Gamow’s whimsy. Thinking it wrong to have a paper on particle physics written by one author whose name began with A (as in positively charged alpha particles) and G (as in gamma rays) without having a B (as in negatively charged beta particles), Gamow asked friend Hans Bethe to add his name to the byline. Bethe agreed, and thereby became part of history.
Just five years later, Gamow made a brilliant addition to a wholly different field. After learning of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, Gamow wrote Crick suggesting that the genetic code was made up of three-part segments. Gamow’s suggestion set Watson, Crick, and other researchers to investigate the possibility, which turned out — in essence (though not in the details Gamow had suggested) — to be true.