These processes could not occur just anywhere, however. They needed extremely high energies to overcome the electrical repulsion of protons—enabling these particles to be close enough to feel the attractive nuclear force. At the time of Bethe’s proposal, it was unclear if stars were hot enough to produce all the higher elements in the universe (beyond helium). It was also uncertain how such material, once created, could be disseminated.

Russian physicist George Gamow, a former student of Friedmann’s, found in Lemaitre’s notion of a “primordial atom” a perfect opportunity to explain how the ultrahigh energies needed for nucleosynthesis could arise. Along with Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, young researchers at Johns Hopkins, Gamow proposed that all the known elements, from hydrogen to uranium, were forged in the blazing furnace of the Big Bang. The Big Bang, they reckoned, was hot enough to allow for the assembly of dozens of elements out of hydrogen building blocks.

Gamow had a splendid sense of humor and could not resist a good joke. When in 1948 he submitted his paper, placing Alpher’s name first and his own name last, he could not resist inserting Bethe’s appellation in the middle. This did not reflect an actual contribution by Bethe to the project. It was just so that the “authorship” of the paper—Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow—could resemble the first three letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, and gamma. Like a mischievous schoolboy who had just pulled off a prank, Gamow sent a copy of the paper to his friend Oskar Klein. He included this personal message to Klein: “It seems that this ‘alphabetical’ article may represent alpha to omega of the element production. How do you like it?”

Perhaps not quite realizing the importance of the paper, Klein wrote back: “Thank you very much for sending me your charming alphabetical paper. Will you allow me, however, to have some doubt as to its representing ‘the alpha to omega of the element production.’ As far as gamma goes, I agree of course completely with you and that



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement