Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Hans Bethe (1906-2005)

Hans Bethe, the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist and last surviving member of the great physicists who built America’s first atomic bomb, passed away on Sunday at the age of 98. Bethe, a refugee from Nazi Germany, had been a professor of physics at Cornell University for 70 years, as well as a leading activist against nuclear proliferation.

As a sometime student of the history of science, I knew of Bethe, if not as much as perhaps I should have. I recommend that everyone read his obituary in today’s New York Times. He accomplished more in his 98 years than anyone else could have in twice that time.

What I missed in the obit was any mention of a rather famous little incident in Bethe’s life, although not one he himself was responsible for. I’m referring, of course, to the famous “Alpher-Bethe-Gamow” paper, written by another great physicist, George Gamow (1904-68).

As described in a biography of Gamow:
In 1948 Gamow and his colleague Ralph Alpher wrote a text about the Big bang -theory and how matter would have come to existence. [Gamow proposed that the matter of the Universe originally existed in a primordial state called the "Ylem," and that Helium and perhaps other elements were formed from the Ylem shortly after the big bang had started the Universe's expansion.] Gamow had a great sense of humour so he invited his friend Hans Bethe to join the list of authors. The text was then called Alpher-Bethe-Gamow Theory (or alpha-beta-gamma theory).
Gamow had once used Bethe's model of stars as a starting point for his own research, so paying tribute in his whimsical little way was fitting.

Hans Bethe was that rare example of a scientist whose research led him to intensely humanistic, rather than exclusively technical, conclusions. In addition, he remained a productive physicist for nearly his entire life, still turning out publishable papers into his 90s. We are missing him already.
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