Luis Walter Alvarez – Physicist, Inventor and Engineer
His contributions to science ranged from splitting atoms and creating aircraft radar systems to developing theories about the extinction of dinosaurs. He won the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his use of bubble chambers to detect new subatomic particles whose classification led to the quark description of matter.
He was one of those rare thinkers whose contributions to science impacted a wide spectrum of study – ranging from atom particles and structure to the field of archeology. What inspired Luis Alvarez? Luis would tell you it was the advice he received long ago as a child from his father, Walter Alvarez who served as a physician-researcher at the Mayo Clinic. Said Luis: "My father advised me to sit every few months in my reading chair for an entire evening, close my eyes and try to think of new problems to solve. I took his advice very seriously and have been glad ever since that I did."
Why He's Important: Born in San Francisco, Luis is perhaps most widely known in science for , receiving the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physics for the development and use of the liquid hydrogen bubble chamber to discover a number of resonance particles whose classification led to the quark description of matter.
But his prominence does not stop there, particularly regarding his contributions as a scientist and inventor during World War II. During this period he: served as a leader on the scientific team which worked on developing the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, NM; helped invent a radar-controlled system which aided pilots blinded by fog and bad weather to land safely (this system is stilled widely used at military airfields today), and invented the VIXEN radar system which enabled U.S. and allied aircraft to detect and track enemy submarines beneath water.
Other Achievements: Luis (who was of Spanish descent) also created an optical system that held lenses steady in cameras and binoculars – an invention that was later applied in zoom lenses of video cameras. And in 1980, collaborating with his son, geologist Walter Alvarez, he proposed that repercussions from an asteroid or comet that impacted the Earth caused the extinction of dinosaurs and hundreds of other species 65 million years ago – a controversial theory which has been increasingly accepted.
Education: He earned his Bachelor's, Master's and Ph.D. degrees in Physics from the University of Chicago. In 1936, he then joined the faculty at the University of California in Berkeley, where he remained almost continuously except during World War II.
In His Own Words: As a physicist, Luis often voiced his hopes for the end of wars, including the end of nuclear arms. He wrote about such hopes in 1987: "The last few centuries have seen the world freed from several scourges—slavery, for example; death by torture for heretics; and, most recently, smallpox. I am optimistic enough to believe that the next scourge to disappear will be large-scale warfare—killed by the existence and non-use of nuclear weapons."
He died at his home in 1988 in Berkeley, CA of cancer.