A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Luis Alvarez
1911 - 1988

Photo: Luis (left) and Walter (right) Alvarez.

Luis Alvarez was a physicist with wide ranging interests. At the University of Chicago, he took a class called Advanced Experimental Physics: Light, and later claimed, "It was love at first sight." He graduated in 1932 and stayed at Chicago for his graduate work. He married, had two kids, and moved to Berkeley, where he worked with Ernest Lawrence and stayed until 1978.

Alvarez's colleagues sometimes called him the "prize wild idea man" because of the huge range of his activities. He did all kinds of research into the atomic nucleus, light, electrons, radar, and so forth. In 1943 he was part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and developed a detonating device for the atomic bomb. He was on board the bomber Enola Gay when it dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Alvarez was shocked and sickened by what he saw, but because the war ended so soon afterwards, he never expressed doubts about the bomb's use. In fact, he was one of few scientists who had worked on the bomb who felt the U.S. should continue weapons development and make a hydrogen bomb. He continued to do varied work in high energy physics and in 1968, received the Nobel Prize.

In 1965 Alvarez took his physics expertise on an archeological expedition. A U.S.-Egyptian team was trying to find hidden chambers in the Giza pyramid in Egypt by using subatomic particles to calculate the pyramid's density. They didn't find any chambers, but this began Alvarez's work with his son Walter, a geology professor at Berkeley. Together they developed a theory in 1980 that a giant asteroidstriking Earth had killed off the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago. They had strong geologic evidence, but the theory is still being debated.

Alvarez's other claims to fame are in assisting the Warren Commission that investigated the assasination of President Kennedy and holding 22 patents, including an indoor golf-training machine he developed for President Eisenhower. Alvarez died of cancer in 1988.

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