The ABC of Cosmic Humbuggery

(From Fall 2003 21st Century)

Laurence Hecht

Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow were the whimsically conceived trio of authors of a 1948 letter to The Physical Review, which reshaped modern thinking on the origin of the elements, and also played an important part in the formulation of the grand conjecture known as The Big Bang. The famous 1948 letter is a work of scientific flim-flammery.

Aside from a lack of epistemological rigor typical of nearly all modern cosmology, Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow’s piece had the added feature of being a direct attack on the leading school of experimental physical chemistry associated with William Draper Harkins, Walter and Ida Noddack, and others. Because it might not be recognized as such today, it is worthwhile to review that aspect of the matter, and hope that in doing so we may cast some needed light into one of the deep, dark holes of the cosmological mythmakers.

I came upon the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow piece in the course of pursuing the trail of the nuclear hypothesis developed by my dear friend and former collaborator, University of Chicago physical chemist and physicist Dr. Robert J. Moon. Moon was the brilliant student of that same Harkins who, for several decades, beginning about the time of World War I, took the point against the reductionist school of atomic and nuclear physics led by Rutherford and Bohr. We shall return to that healthy tradition shortly. We first briefly review the story of the overpriced letter.

Harkins noted that three elements—Oxygen (O), Silicon (Si), and Iron (Fe)—make up more than 80 percent of the atomic composition of meteorites. Ten elements of even number make up 97.59 perent of the meteorites. The extraordinary abundance of just a few of the 92 elements must be a clue to the stability of their nuclear structure. The data are given for 350 stone and 10 iron meteorites.
Source: Harkins “The Building of Atoms and the New Periodic System,” Science, Dec. 26, 1919, p. 581

In early 1948, George Gamow, the well-known physicist and writer then at George Washington University, and R.A. Alpher launched their attack on Harkins, et al., in the form of a new theory of the origin of the chemical elements. Gamow, ever the merry prankster, asked Hans Bethe to join in endorsing the effort, which was published as a letter to The Physical Review in April 1948.1 Bethe (who as recently as 1990, told 21st Century Associate Editor Charles B. Stevens that “the only thing worse than cold fusion is Harkins”) was glad to join in, giving the paper’s authorship its alphabeticality. We shall thus, henceforth, refer to it as ABC Humbug.

The harmless part of ABC Humbug is the authors’ conjecture that the heavy elements, whose origin could not be explained by natural fusion of lighter ones, might have arisen by neutron-capture transmutations occurring from exposure to a neutron flux. The flim-flammery begins when the authors attempt to prove the conjecture by trying to correlate the curve of the abundance of the elements to neutron capture cross-sections, which were concocted out of thin air.

The gist of the argument was that one could explain the abundancy curve by showing that those atomic species of higher capture cross-section would, upon neutron-capture, become unstable. Then, by such processes as beta decay (emission of an electron), the neutron would be transformed into a nuclear proton, creating a new species of higher atomic number. But a close reading of ABC Humbug and a supporting article by Alpher2 demonstrates that the capture cross-sections for high-energy neutrons were merely guessed at; in fact, their determination remains a difficult matter, especially as cross-sections may vary greatly according to energy levels. The entire idea of determining abundance by capture cross-sections was pure conjecture, for the high-energy capture cross sections were not known. They were only estimated by extrapolation from the 1/v law, which was only true in a limited range. Alpher was not even shy about admitting such defects. Indeed, the capture cross-section concept itself is only a working hypothesis, lacking any clear understanding of nuclear structure.

The paper had an effect much beyond its worth. As a piece of science it was probably not worthy of a passing grade. There is not even a sliver of a firm foundation for the assertion that transmutation by neutron capture is the basis for the origin of the heavy elements. All is conjecture.

William Draper Harkins (1873-1951, left) and his brilliant student Robert J. Moon, Jr. (1911-1989) carried on the tradition of experimental physical chemistry pioneered by Lavoisier and Mendeleev. Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow’s humbuggery was an attack from the direction of the Rutherford-Bohr school of reductionist physics.

From this piece of fantasy, we are supposed to conclude that the elements originated somewhere afar off from our solar system, in the presence of a neutron source, which later came to be identified with a neutron star. ABC Humbug tells us it all began with a highly compressed neutron gas, which started decaying into protons and electrons when the conjectured gas pressure fell, as a result of the conjectured universal expansion.

This was Gamow’s version of the Big Bang, the predecessor of the modern accepted brand. One of its worst byproducts was the placing into general circulation of the really unproven assumption that the composition of matter in the universe as a whole is now known. It would surprise most people today to learn that at the time of ABC Humbug, and for some years after, almost all astronomers thought that the core of the Sun, and of most stars, was iron. Although the truth of this matter seems unknowable at this time—for we cannot get to the core of our Earth, not to speak of stars—there is not really sound proof otherwise. The accepted view of solar composition rests on a peculiar construct known as the neutrino, conceived in 1930 by the Robert Fludd-admiring mystic Wolfgang Pauli. In million-gallon vats of carbon tetrachloride, buried deep underground, a minute number of phenomena supposed to correspond to this little reaction-particle are observed. Is it the neutrino, or are we merely being taken to the cleaners?

The Harkins School
ABC Humbug was an assault on that very productive tradition of physical chemistry associated with Harkins and his student Moon. Its high-flying fancy typifies the methodological sloppiness of much that came later, a point which becomes clearest by contrasting it to the hardworking approach of the physical chemists.

Recognizing that the elements in the crust of the Earth, the only ones accessible to mining technology, might provide only a skewed picture of the total distribution in the solar system, Harkins set out to examine the composition of meteorites. These objects, presumed to have originated in the asteroid belt, might, it was thought, provide a more representative sample of the elemental composition of matter in the solar system, especially if they represented exploded fragments of a larger body.

Harkins and his collaborators carried out painstaking analyses of samples from more than 300 iron and stony meteorites. The results, published beginning in 1916, showed that only a very small number of the 92 elements made up the great bulk of their matter. In an analysis of 350 stone and 10 iron meteorites, oxygen, silicon, iron, and magnesium made up more than 90 percent of the atomic composition. The first three of these elements alone made up over 80 percent. The distribution was not so different in the Earth’s crust. What should favor these few elements over the others?

Another notable feature of the abundance tables developed by Harkins and others, was what came to be known as the odd-even rule. While there is a general tendency for the abundance to decline as one moves up the periodic table, the abundance of the even-numbered elements nearly always exceeds that of the nearby odd ones. These and other facts led to the hypothesis of a correspondence between abundancy and nuclear stability. It was generally supposed that the nuclear structure, once understood, would explain the reason for the favored elements.

Another line of Harkins’s researches led in the direction of nuclear fusion. In writings as early as 1915, he noted the discrepancy between the sum of the weights of four hydrogen atoms, or of two protons and two neutrons (Harkins had conceived the neutron more than a decade before Chadwick, who is credited with its discovery), and the measured atomic weight of the second element, helium. The conversion of that missing mass to energy, according to the famous equation derived by Einstein, would lead to enormous release of energy. The existence of the spectral lines for hydrogen and helium in the Sun and stars suggested that it was fusion that powered the stars. However, the same reasoning showed that the production by fusion of elements much beyond iron would not lead to energy release, for the mass defect in such combinations dwindled and disappeared for combinations of the heavier elements.

If one were to take the simplistic view that the production of the elements must have occurred by the fusion of pre-existing lighter elements, themselves perhaps originating from the fusion of pre-existing hydroËgen, this fact would present a problem. But only for such a simplistic view. The idea that the existing state of the world can be explained by assembly of presumed pre-existing parts, as in Aristotle’s hyle or protyles, is one of the characteristic features of reductionism.

Moon’s Concept
Harkins’s student, Dr. Robert J. Moon, was one of a number of leading non-conventional scientific thinkers who used to gather periodically for seminars with Lyndon H. LaRouche in the 1983-1989 period. In the summer of 1986, Moon conceived a new model of the atomic nucleus which drew upon his lifelong work in nuclear physics and chemistry, as seasoned by the influence of LaRouche’s seminal mind and Johannes Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum.

The most proximate influence on Moon’s thinking was the then-recent experiment of Klaus von Klitzing, showing a stepwise set of plateaus in the Hall resistance of a thin, super-cooled semiconducting layer. Moon saw that in von Klitzing’s apparatus, the electrons were limited to a plane, and thus, after five steps, the plateaus become less distinct, but that in three dimensions this might not be so. From such thoughts, Moon adduced that the stepwise reduction from the maximum Hall resistance (25,812 ohms) down to the impedance of free space (376 ohms), could be looked at as caused by the formation of electron pairs. To explain the ratio of the maximum over minimum resistance, which coincides with one-half the inverse of the fine structure constant, or 137, Moon envisioned putting together 68 electron pairs plus one single electron, in three-dimensional space.

This now touched on a paradox in the theory of electricity which had intrigued Moon for his whole life, from early childhood experiments. to his building of the cyclotron which supplied the first atomic pile, to his design and construction of the first scanning X-ray microscope. Namely, if free space is a vacuum, how is it possible that it exhibits impedance, which is a kind of resistance to the passage of waves that does not dissipate energy? His answer was that there is no vacuum, and that what is called free space has a structure. Thus space must be quantized.3 When these thoughts were put together in his mind with the paradox of nuclear stability, which had been raised by Harkins’s work on the meteorites, the Moon model of the nucleus was born.

The structure for the quantization of space turned out to be an assemblage of four of the five Platonic solids nested within one another, the sum of whose vertices equal 46. Two such assemblages together form the 92 elements of the periodic table. Three of them placed together, with one position lost at the juncture, form the places for 137 electrons as they may be found in free space.

The building up of the nested solids corresponds to the building-up (aufbau) principle of the periodic table. The first solid is the cube, whose eight vertices correspond to the eight protons of the oxygen nucleus. This is the most stable nucleus as attested by the abundancy of oxygen, which makes up about 53 percent of the atoms in the meteorite samples. The cube may be thought of as fitting within a sphere, around which is circumscribed an octahedron, whose six additional vertices take us to the next most stable element, silicon (atomic number 14), which comprises about 16 percent of all the atoms in the meteorites. An icosahedron is circumscribed upon the sphere which surrounds the octahedron. Its 12 additional vertices take us to iron (atomic number 26), which is the next in abundancy, making up another 12 percent of the atoms in the meteorite samples.

There, in the broadest outline, is the strong hypothesis of Moon, concerning the nuclear structure. An elaboration of the correspondences to the chemical properties of the elements may be found elsewhere.4 Moon did not speculate, to my knowledge, on the origin of the elements, except to point out that the steady flux of protons known as cosmic rays, taken together with his concept of space quantization, give good grounds for supposing the creation of the elements within the solar system.

Moon’s model finds little audience today, while humbuggery of the most speculative sort dominates our scientific literature and teaching. Such must be the way of a world where men’s minds remain in such confusion. Yet, we have good reason to hope that we may soon change it.


1. R.A. Alpher, H. Bethe, G. Gamow, “The Origin of Chemical Elements,” Physical Review, Vol. 73, No. 7, p. 803 (April 1, 1948).

2. R.A. Alpher “A Neutron-Capture Theory of the Formation and Relative Abundance of the Elements,” Physical Review, Vol. 74, No. 11, p. 1577 ff. (Dec. 1, 1948).

3. R.J. Moon, “‘Spa‘Space Must Be Quantized’” 21st Century Science, May-June 1988, pp. 26-27.

4. Laurence Hecht, “The Geometric Basis for the Periodicity of the Elements,” 21st Century Science, May-June 1988, pp. 18-30; “Advances in Developing the Moon Nuclear Model,” 21st Century, Fall 2000, p. 5.

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