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Luis W. Alvarez was born in San Francisco June 13, 1911. He attended the University of Chicago receiving a bachelor of science degree (1932), a masters' (1934), and, in 1936, his Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Dr. Alvarez began his career at the Radiation Laboratory, which would become the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, managed by the University of California, Berkeley. During World War II he worked on aviation instrumentation, radar technology, and the Manhattan Project. After the war he returned to his work at the Radiation Laboratory and helped design and build the Berkeley 40-foot proton linear accelerator. Dr. Alvarez became a full professor in 1946 at UC, Berkeley. Part of his work at the laboratory involved improving the bubble chamber, a device used to measure the properties of sub-atomic particles.

His development of the liquid hydrogen bubble chamber allowed him and his group to study short-lived particles with great precision and they were able to discover and identify many resonance particles. For this work, Luis W. Alvarez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968.

image of Luis Alvarez

Copyright, Paul Bishop, Jr.

In order to accomplish this work, he and his group pioneered the computer analysis of the large amounts of data from the experiments. Berkeley National Laboratory established the Luis W. Alvarez Postdoctoral Fellowship in Computational Science in honor of his revolutionary work. His influence on modern technology is easily as wide ranging. Many of his developments on radar and aviation instrumentation are still being applied today and in 1945 he was awarded the Collier Trophy (one of the most prestigious honors in aviation) for his Ground-Controlled Approach system that allows aircraft to land safely during bad weather. In 1978 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Dr Alvarez's work extended well beyond the physics laboratory. He was a member of the scientific team asked to analyze the film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, developed an instrument which was used to set the standard unit of length, and he worked on a project to use cosmic rays to probe the interior of an Egyptian pyramid. However, probably his most noticeable work outside of nuclear physics was in 1980 with his son, Walter Alvarez, a geophysicist. Together they first proposed that the major contribution to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was a large asteroid striking the earth. Luis W. Alvarez died in 1988. More information can be obtained from his autobiography, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist, published in 1987.

 

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