Luis Alvarez

Luis Alvarez

(1911-1988)

Luis Alvarez was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and his work had a profound effect on the course of science and history in the twentieth century. Alvarez was born in 1911 in San Francisco, California, where his father was a well-known physician and medical researcher at the University of California Medical School.

His father later moved the family to Rochester, Minnesota, so he could work at the world- renowned Mayo Clinic.As a young student, Alvarez excelled in the sciences. He began to show an interest in physics, and his father hired a colleague to tutor him. The training paid off.

Alvarez enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1928 and received his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1932. Four years later, he received his Ph.D. After Aivarez received his Ph.D., he returned to California to join the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley as a research scientist. He remained affiliated with UC Berkeley until he retired from academics in 1978.

At Berkeley, Alvarez began to study atomic energy and structure. Later, he did important military research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) immediately prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. While at MIT, he collaborated with other sci¬ entists to develop the first radar systems. He developed a bombing targeting system, a microwave early warning system, and a narrow beam radar system to enable planes to land in bad weather.

When the United States became involved in World War II, Alvarez was assigned to the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. There, scientists developed the detonating device that was used for the first atomic bombs, two of which were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Alvarez came to terms with his involvement in the project, saying that it helped bring about a swift end to the war and prevent¬ ed the loss of more lives.

After the war, Alvarez returned to UC Berkeley as a professor, refining and developing new instruments for the study of subatomic particles. He discovered dozens of new elemen¬ tary particles, and his work paved the way for new research and discoveries in high energy physics. He received the ultimate recognition for his work in 1968, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Alvarez continued to explore new fields of science even after he became a Nobel laureate. Based on his discovery of a rare mineral ele¬ ment on a trip to Italy, he developed a theory about a giant meteor that crashed to Earth sixty-five million years ago. He theorized that the collision formed a dust cloud that obscured the Sun, bringing about the extinc¬ tion of the dinosaurs. The theory is still the subject of debate in scientific circles.