Luis Walter Alvarez Biography


Birthday: June 13, 1911 (Gemini)

Born In: San Francisco

An experimental physicist, Luis Walter Alvarez was known for the discovery of resonance particles and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968. His scientific inclination could be credited to his father and grandfather, as both of them were physicians. He was educated in San Francisco, and later moved on to Rochester where he attended Rochester High School. Alvarez received all his degrees till doctorate from University of Chicago. During his college days he investigated the effect of cosmic rays. He then worked at the Radiation Laboratory where his long association with University of Berkeley was formed. During this time, he also got engaged to his first wife Geraldine, whom he later divorced and married again. During World War II, Luis worked in MIT on microwave radar research. The next few years, he also participated in the development of atomic bomb. His association with the Radiation Laboratory was once again established, after the war, as he worked on a hydrogen bubble chamber. His long-standing association with Physics was recognized by the Nobel Prize Committee. In his later years, he worked with his son Walter and developed the theory about the extinction of dinosaurs. Read on to know more about his life and works
Quick Facts

Died At Age: 77


father: Walter C. Alvarez

children: Walter Alvarez

Physicists American Men

Died on: September 1, 1988

place of death: Berkeley

U.S. State: California

City: San Francisco, California

More Facts

education: University of Chicago

awards: 1968 - Nobel Prize in Physics
1961 - Albert Einstein Award
1964 - National Medal of Science for Physical Science

Childhood & Early Life
Luis Alvarez, named after his grandfather, was born on 13th June in 1911, in San Francisco, California. His father and grandfather were both physicians, and his grandfather lived a large portion of his life in Spain, Cuba, and in United States.
Alvarez was the second among his siblings and the oldest son of Walter C. Alvarez and Harriet. He had an elder sister named Gladys, a younger sister Bernice and a younger brother Bob.
From a very young age, Luis showed his knack for machines, tools and technology in general. At the age of 11, Luis built his own radio with the help of his father after seeing a magazine article about the process of making a radio.
From 1918 to 24, Luis studied in ‘Madison School’ in San Francisco and ‘San Francisco Polytechnic School’ respectively.
In 1926, his father moved to Rochester, Minnesota as a researcher in ‘Mayo Clinic’ and Luis was admitted to ‘Rochester High School’.
At the age of 18, he started studying maths and chemistry in the ‘University of Chicago’.
His first love was always Physics, and during his undergraduate years, in 1932 he experimented with machines, the outcome of which was Geiger counter, which helps in measuring radiation.
He conducted an experiment to measure the effect of east-west cosmic rays in Mexico City. The findings of this experiment, was published in ‘Physical Review’.
In the same year, he received the Bachelor of Science degree from University of Chicago, followed by Master of Science in 1934 and PhD two years later.
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In 1936, Alvarez joined ‘Radiation Laboratory’ in ‘University of California’. It was his sister Gladys who worked as a part-time secretary for Ernest Lawrence, one of the topmost nuclear physicists in the laboratory, who introduced her brother to Lawrence.
Alvarez was supposed to look after the machine, cyclotron which helps in the study of atoms. An enthusiastic Luis himself made quite a few new discoveries about atoms.
In 1938, Alvarez discovered that radioactive elements decay by orbital-electron capture. The next year, he collaborated with Felix Bloch and measured the magnetic moment of the neutron.
During the years 1940-43, Alvarez worked in MIT on microwave radar research. This radar system was built to guide airplanes through darkness or fog, a technique much needed in the onset of World War II.
During the years 1945-46, he participated in one of the top secret projects of the government; the development of atom bomb in ‘Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory’.
However, Alvarez was devastated by the huge loss of lives and mass destruction caused by the atom bomb in Hiroshima; a fact that he later disclosed in a letter to his son.
After his return to the ‘Radiation Laboratory’, he used his war time knowledge and built a hydrogen bubble chamber.
In 1965, Alvarez combined his expertise in Physics with archaeology, when a US-Egyptian team was trying to discover the hidden chambers of Giza. This was the beginning of his work with his son Walter, a teacher of geology by profession.
Alvarez continued his work in different areas of Physics and won the Nobel Prize in the year 1968.
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In 1980, the erudite physicist in collaboration with his son Walter came up with a theory that a giant asteroid had killed all the dinosaurs on Earth, a point which had solid geologic evidence, but is a matter of debate till now.
Major Work
The accomplished scientist has played a significant role in the advancement of physics but his contribution in the development of an atom bomb, and the liquid hydrogen bubble chamber which enabled discovery of new resonance states as seen in particle physics, was the most profound. He was even awarded the Nobel Prize for his studies on particle physics.
Awards & Achievements
In 1946, he was given the ‘Collier Trophy’ for the development of ‘Ground Control Approach’ by the ‘National Aeronautical Association’.
In 1953, he was given the ‘John Scott Medal and Prize’ for his research in ‘Ground Control Approach’.
He was named as the “California Scientist of the Year” for his ground-breaking research work in Physics, in 1960. The following year, he was given the ‘Einstein Medal’ for his continued contribution in sciences.
In 1964, he received ‘National Medal of Science’ for his contribution in high-energy Physics. Alvarez was given the Michelson Award the following year.
This erudite physicist was honoured with the prestigious ‘Nobel Prize in Physics’, in 1968.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1936, the year he got his job at Radiation Laboratory, Alvarez was engaged to Geraldine Smithwick. They had one son Walter and a daughter Jean.
In 1957, the duo got divorced, and the next year on 28th December, this scientist got married to Janet L. Landis. From his second marriage, he had one more son, Donald and a daughter named as Helen.
This pioneering physicist breathed his last after a prolonged battle with cancer on September 1, 1988. After his cremation, his ashes were scattered in the Monterey Bay.

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