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α, β, γ, an odd joke, and insomnia

Published Saturday, April 01, 2023 @ 2:53 AM EDT
Apr 01 2023

On this date in 1952, a paper by Ralph Alpher, Hans Bethe, and George Gamow, in an article formally entitled "The Origin of Chemical Elements," was published in the journal Physical Review.

It described a mathematical model whose calculations of the amount of hydrogen and helium in the universe produced by the "Big Bang" and nucleosynthesis matched the actual observable quantities of those elements. It was, in a sense, the first major work to support the controversial Big Bang model since 1929, when Edwin Hubble observed and measured the redshifts of galaxies.

I mention this because it's April Fools' Day, and recognition of the "holiday" spun the brain-fatigued sexagenarian Big Wheel of Bizarre Youthful Flashbacks in my mind, which finally settled on an experience with my high school trigonometry teacher.

Wandering the aisles of the classroom, Mr. Stein noticed the library book on my desk, "One Two Three . . . Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science" by George Gamow. A renowned theoretical physicist, Gamow was sort of the Neil de Grasse Tyson of his day, presenting complex science topics in ways accessible to the layman.

"Ah, Gamow!" Mr. Stein nodded appreciatively. He then told me the story about the paper, published on April Fools' Day 1952, and how Gamow had a wicked sense of humor. While his friend, Hans Bethe, actually didn't contribute to the paper, Gamow decided to add his name to the work in order to create the droll byline "Alpher, Bethe, Gamow", mimicking the first three letters of the Greek alphabet- α, β, and γ (alpha, beta, gamma). Quite the knee-slapper, eh?

Mr. Stein went to his desk, rummaged around, and produced an actual copy of the journal, which he displayed to me with the pride one might have in posessing an autographed copy of The Shakespeare First Folio (which would indeed be impressive, since the First Folio was published seven years after Shakespeare's death. But I digress.).

He opened the journal to the table of contents, where he had encircled, in red felt-tip pen, the names of the authors. Even at my age at the time (16), I realized he had significantly reduced the value of his prized possession. I also realized I should just look suitably impressed and keep my mouth shut.

Mr. Stein was generally acknowleged, even by his fellow faculty, as a bit of an eccentric. He looked like a stocky Doc Brown from Back to the Future, with a shock of disheveled white hair and the perpetual expression of a person trying to recall the location of his car keys. His sole wardrobe- a grey suitcoat and almost matching pair of pants- while sharp and pressed on Mondays, was an amorphous mass by Friday. Were it a college and not a high school, he would have been easily identified as the prototypical absent-minded professor.


(It's odd the things that pop into your head after 52 years, when you can't get to sleep because the Shih Tzu snores and chases tiny, grotesque creatures in her sleep, and the little white Maltese/GKW (God knows what) is growling at invisible intruders.)

Categories: April Fools' Day, Big Bang, George Gamow, Hans Bethe, KGB, Ralph Alpher


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