Luis W. Alvarez, Experimental Physicist


Luis W. Alvarez, Experimental Physicist

Alvarez Residence: 131 Southampton Avenue
Alvarez Office: LeConte Hall, UC Berkeley

Experimental physicist Louis Alvarez applied modern physics to diverse subjects in an unparalleled manner. His refinement and use of the hydrogen bubble chamber to facilitate the detection and analysis of subatomic particles, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968, was but one of his many achievements.

Alvarez, son of the well-known physician Walter Alvarez, was born in San Francisco. He attended the University of Chicago, where he earned three degrees in physics before returning to the Bay Area to join E. O. Lawrence at the Radiation Laboratory and become a member of the UC Berkeley physics faculty. Except for periods during World War II when he worked at MIT and the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, his work was conducted in Berkeley.

Alvarez made numerous contributions to the development of radar, including the Ground Controlled Approach for assisting pilots to land in bad weather. This invention, which has saved thousands of lives, was used by the military for decades and is still in use in some areas of the world. Using the tools of high-energy physics, he examined the interior of The Second Pyramid of Egypt to determine that there were no hidden chambers. In 1966 he applied basic principles of mechanics to the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination to explain several previous misinterpretations. In perhaps his best known discovery outside of physics, Alvarez, together with his geologist son Walter and LBNL colleagues Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, proposed that the extinction of the dinosaurs resulted from the impact of an asteroid. Their controversial theory of mass extinction, based on rare earth samples, is now widely-accepted.

Contributed by Ed Theil, 2012

  • 60-inch cyclotron, courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • Alvarez Residence, 131 Southampton Ave. (2012), photo R. Kehlmann.

  • Alvarez receiving National Medal of Science from President Johnson (1964), courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • Alvarez, Seymour and Lawrence before 60-inch cyclotron (1939), courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • Graduate student Luis Alvarez with Arthur Compton at Univ. Chicago (1933) courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • New Clues in JFK Assassination photos (1967), photo Doug McWilliams, courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • Helen Michel, Frank Asaro, Walter and Luis Alvarez, 1980, “The Extinction of the Dinosaurs” team, courtesy of LBNL Archives.

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society