Childhood and education
Alpher was the son of a Belarusian Jewish immigrant, Samuel Alpher (born Ilfirovich), from Vitebsk, Belarus. His mother, Rose Maleson, died of stomach cancer in 1938, and his father later remarried. Alpher graduated at age 15 from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., and held the ranks of Major and Commander of his school's Cadet program. He worked in the high school theater as stage manager for two years, supplementing his family's Depression-era income. He also learned Gregg shorthand, and in 1937 began working for the Director of the American Geophysical Union as a stenographer. In 1940 he was hired by the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Foundation, where he worked with Dr. Scott Forbush under contract for the U.S. Navy to develop ship degaussing techniques during World War II. He contributed to the development of the Mark 32 and Mark 45 detonators, torpedoes, Naval gun control, Magnetic Airborne Detection (of submarines), and other top-secret ordnance work (including the Manhattan Project), and he was recognized at the end of the War with the Naval Ordnance Development Award (December 10, 1945—with Symbol), and another Naval Ordnance Development award in 1946. Alpher's war time work been somewhat obscured by security classification. From 1944 through 1955, he was employed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. During the daytime he was involved in the development of ballistic missiles, guidance systems, supersonics, and related subjects. In 1948 he earned his Ph.D. in Physics with a theory of nucleosynthesis called neutron-capture, and from 1948 onward collaborated with Dr. Robert C. Herman (Ph.D. in Physics, 1940, Princeton University, under E. Condon), also at APL, on predictions of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (now widely referred to by the acronym CMB). Alpher was somewhat ambivalent about the nature of his ordnance work. having dedicated much of his early career to this in order to obtain his doctorate.
At age 16, he was offered a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but it may have been withdrawn after Alpher had required meeting with an alumnus in Washington, D.C., with little explanation or clarification. Instead, he earned his bachelor's degree and advanced graduate degrees in physics from George Washington University, all the while working as a physicist on contract to the Navy, and eventually for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He met Russian-Ukrainian physicist George Gamow at the University, who subsequently took him on as his doctoral student. This was somewhat of a coup, as Gamow was a prominent Soviet defector and one of the luminaries on the GWU faculty. His first physics course was taught by Edward Teller, brought onto the GWU faculty in 1935 to give Gamow a peer on the faculty. Alpher provided much needed mathematical ability to support Gamow's theorizing. Gamow often gave talks across the world on "The Origin of the Elements", which was Alpher's original dissertation. Gamow continues to be credited with Alpher's work on nucleosynthesis. Alpher followed his dissertation immediately with the first prediction of the existence of "fossil" radiation from a hypothetical singularity—the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This was observationally confirmed by Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Labs using a horn radiotelescope. Further research has shown other observations made, but not interpreted cosmologically. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the observation in 1978. Ironically a group at Princeton was given credit for making a cosmological interpretation in an inflationary universe (Big Bang) in a companion publication in 1965 to Penzias and Wilson, which is incorrect.
While attending GWU, Alpher met Louise Ellen Simons, who was majoring in psychology at night school and working as a day secretary with the State Department. Nearly two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Alpher and Louise were married. At this time he had already done classified work for the U.S. Navy through the Carnegie Institution for nearly one and a half years. During a hiatus in his scientific work in early 1944, he did apply to the Navy for a commission, for which he was eligible. By this time he had done so much classified and secret work he was no longer subject to the draft (along with about 7,000 others), and prohibited from enlistment. That summer, he signed on to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to work on another classified project—a new magnetic-influence torpedo exploder. This was badly needed since the Mark 14 torpedo, which had a poorly tested exploder that had its magnetic component turned off by order of the Chief of Naval Operations in late 1943, was badly in need of replacement (V.S. Alpher, The Submarine Review, October, 2009).