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Luis Walter Alvarez: 1911-1988: Nuclear Physicist, Inventor, Educator

Early Laboratory Experience

As a child, Alvarez gained valuable experience wiring electrical circuits while working in the shop of his father, Dr. Walter Clement Alvarez, a medical researcher in physiology at the University of California at San Francisco. When the family moved to Rochester, Minnesota, Luis Alvarez attended Rochester High School and apprenticed under a machinist at the instrument workshop at the Mayo Clinic, where his father was employed. In Alvarez's junior year at the University of Chicago, he changed majors from organic chemistry to physics, the source of his interest in optics. While taking twelve physics courses in five quarters, he worked with technicians in the optical lab of Albert Michelson and, on his own, devoured Michelson's articles. Alvarez's first published paper explained how to measure light wavelength using a lamp, phonograph record, and yardstick. By studying Hans Geiger's writings, Alvarez built one of America's first Geiger counters, a device to measure radioactivity.

Although Alvarez later criticized his basic education in the sciences, he appreciated having Nobel Laureate Arthur Compton for a mentor and learned on his own to build with glass and metal. Richard L. Garwin, who published a tribute to Alvarez's career in a 1987 issue of Physics Today, quoted Alvarez's version of how he learned to work independently by reading primary source materials: "I had the enormous self-confidence to be expected of a Robinson Crusoe who had spent three years on a desert island. I had browsed the library so thoroughly that I knew where to find the books I needed to learn almost anything I wanted to know." His humble reflection omits the fact that, years later, he could recite data, journal issue, author, and page on which information appeared.

At a Glance . . .

Born Luis Walter Alvarez on June 13, 1911, in San Francisco, California; died August 31, 1988 in Berkeley, California; married Harriet S. Smyth (divorced); married Janet Landis; children: (with Smyth)Walter, (with Landis) Donald, Helen. Education: University of Chicago, B.S., physics, 1932, M.S.,1934, Ph.D., 1936.

Career: University of California, faculty member, 1936-78; MIT, 1940-43; radar research and development, MIT, radar research and development, 1944-45; University of California, Berkeley, professor of physics, 1945-78; Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, associate director, 1945-59; University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus, 1978-88.

Memberships: American Physical Society, president, 1969; Institut D'Egypt, associate; National Academy of Scientists, National Academy of Engineering; American Physical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Phi Beta Kappa; Sigma Xi.

Awards: National Aeronautical Associations's Collier Air Trophy, 1946; Medal for Merit, 1948; the city of Philadelphia's John Scott Medal and Prize, 1953; California Scientist of the Year, 1960; Einstein medal, 1961; Pioneer Award, 1963; National Medal of Science, 1964; Michelson Award, 1965; Nobel Prize in Physics, 1968; National Inventors Hall of Fame, 1978; Dudley Wright Prize in Interdisciplinary Science, 1981; Rockwell Medal, 1986; Enrico Fermi Award, U. S. Energy Department, 1987; honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago, 1967, Carnegie Mellon University, 1968, Kenyon College, 1969, Notre Dame University, 1976, Ain Shams University, Cairo, 1979, and Pennsylvania College of Optometry, 1982.

At age 23 Alvarez mastered aviation with the same passion with which he tackled other new skills. After only three hours of dual instruction, he flew solo. His license was the beginning of a half century of flying. In 1936 he and his wife, Harriet S. Smyth Alvarez, settled in Berkeley, California and reared a son, Walter. For most of his life, Alvarez worked in the Radiation Laboratory, a university atmosphere that suited him. Before beginning any projects, he read all the library's holdings on the subject of nuclear physics and memorized the equipment layout of every lab drawer and cabinet shelf. One of his first contributions to the laboratory was the reclamation of a neglected cyclotron, a device that accelerates charged particles. Nurturing his curiosity were Monday evenings spent with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Orlando Lawrence at the journal club and a subsequent introduction to Hans Bethe's overviews of nuclear physics in Reviews of Modern Physics, which challenged Alvarez to disprove them.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: (Hugo) Alvar (Henrik) Aalto (1898–1976) Biography to Miguel Angel Asturias (1899–1974) BiographyLuis Walter Alvarez: 1911-1988: Nuclear Physicist, Inventor, Educator Biography - Early Laboratory Experience, Inventor And Researcher, A Professor Once More, A Lifetime Of Useful Work