Index The Garwin Archive


                                                        May 1, 1991

                             Richard L. Garwin

            (Published in Memorial Tributes, National Academy of
               Engineering, Volume 5, National Academy Press,
                           Washington, DC, 1992)

       Luis W.  Alvarez  was an outstanding scientist and engineer.
       It is a challenge to  his  friends  and  biographers  to  do
       justice    to    the   breadth   and   depth   of   Luis'(1)
       accomplishments.  His bare-bones biography  does  provide  a
       hint--  Physicist,  born in San Francisco June 13, 1911, son
       of Walter C.  and  Harriet  Smyth  Alvarez,  married  (1936)
       Geraldine  Smithwick,  with whom he had two children, Walter
       and Jean.  In 1958 married Janet L. Landis--  two  children,
       Donald and Helen.

       Luis  Alvarez  earned  the  B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Physics
       from the University of Chicago  in  1932,  1934,  and  1936.
       Beginning  in  1936,  his  entire  career  was  spent at the
       University of California at Berkeley as Professor of Physics
       1945-1978,  and  Professor  Emeritus  from  1978.    He  was
       Associate  Director  of  the  Lawrence  Radiation Laboratory
       1949-59 and 1975-78.  During the Second World  War,  he  did
       radar  research  and  development  at MIT 1940-1943 and then
       worked at Los Alamos 1944-1945.

       Luis Alvarez was a consultant over  the  years  to  numerous
       agencies of the United States government and was a member of
       the  President's Science Advisory Committee in 1973.  He was
       a long-time member of the IBM Science Advisory Committee and
       a Director of the Hewlett-Packard Company.

       His talents did not go unrecognized.  He was a Fellow of the
       American Physical Society  (and  President  of  the  APS  in
       1969),  a  member of the National Academy of Sciences and of
       the  National  Academy  of  Engineering,  of  the   American
       Philosophical  Society  and the American Academy of Arts and
       Sciences, of Phi Beta Kappa and of Sigma Xi.  He was also an
       Associate Member of the Institut D'Egypte.

       He received the Collier Trophy (Aviation) in 1946, the Medal
       for Merit in  1948,  the  John  Scott  Medal  in  1953,  the
       Einstein  Medal  in  1961,  the National Medal of Science in
       1964, the Michelson  Award  in  1965,  the  Nobel  Prize  in
       Physics  in 1968, the Dudley Wright Prize (Interdisciplinary
       Science) in 1981.

       He was named California Scientist of the Year  in  1960  and
       named  to  the  National  Inventors  Hall  of  Fame in 1978.
       Luis W. Alvarez died in his Berkeley home August 31, 1988.

       Luis  Alvarez  presented  a fascinating view of his life and
       involvements in his autobiography,(2) and the flavor of  his
       scientific   activities   is  available  in  a  recent  book
       subtitled,  "Selected  Works  of   Luis W.   Alvarez,   with
       commentary by his students and colleagues."(3) Luis' father,
       Walter C. Alvarez, was a physician in San  Francisco,  where
       he  worked  each morning on research in physiology, and as a
       private  practitioner  in  the  afternoons  to  support  his
       family.    Although  he showed no interest in the biological
       aspects of his father's work, by the time Luis  was  ten  he
       could  use  all of the small tools in his father's shop, and
       wire up electrical circuits.

       In 1925, Walter C. Alvarez left his very successful practice
       as an internist in San Francisco to join the  staff  of  the
       Mayo   Clinic   in   Rochester,  Minnesota,  as  a  research
       physiologist, resuming his career there as a clinician a few
       years later during the Depression.   On his  retirement,  he
       had  a  third  career  as  a  syndicated  newspaper  medical
       columnist, gaining fame as "America's Family Doctor."

       During  two  high  school  summers,  Luis   added   to   his
       experimental  skills as an apprentice in the instrument shop
       of the Mayo Clinic.  Enrolling in the University of  Chicago
       in  chemistry,  he  discovered  instead  a  real  talent and
       passion in physics, beginning with a fascination for optics,
       in  which  his  native  talent  was  nourished   by   Albert
       Michelson's  optical technicians.   Studying optics, working
       with Michelson's own instruments, taking 12 physics  courses
       in  five  quarters, Alvarez soon read in the physics library
       every word Michelson had published.  Thus he began his  long
       and    tremendously   facile   acquaintanceship   with   the
       literature,  exercising  an   excellent   memory   for   the
       substance,  presentation,  and even the location of articles
       he had read many years before.

       In 1934, Luis began  his  long  involvement  with  aviation,
       soloing  "with  just  three  hours of dual instruction."  He
       flew for 50 years, logging more than a thousand hours  as  a
       pilot  before  deciding at the age of 73 that it was time to
       put away that demanding and delightful avocation.

       In  1936,  Ernest  Lawrence  invited  Alvarez  to  join  the
       Berkeley  Radiation Laboratory.  Luis' older sister, Gladys,
       worked for E.O. Lawrence in Berkeley as a secretary, and  on
       a  visit to Chicago, Lawrence (then 32) invited Luis Alvarez
       to  tour the Chicago Exposition with him, the beginning of a
       close and productive friendship.

       At Berkeley Luis spent almost a year "reading everything
       that  had  been  written on the subject" of nuclear physics.
       He also soon knew the contents "of every drawer and  cabinet
       in  the  Radiation  Laboratory,"  and  resurrected the first
       small cyclotrons from oblivion.  Key to his evolution  as  a
       scientist  was Ernest Lawrence's journal club, meeting every
       Monday night  at  7:30--  a  tradition  that  continued  for
       decades  in  Luis'  home.    Also influential was the "Bethe
       Bible," three articles published by Hans Bethe in Reviews of
       Modern Physics in 1936 and 1937.    Luis'  highly  developed
       competitive  spirit  was stimulated by these 468 pages-- "If
       he (Bethe) said a phenomenon would never  be  observable,  I
       wanted  to  prove  him  wrong,  which  would make both of us
       happy.  In several significant instances over the next  four
       years, I did."

       Luis'  discoveries  in  Physics are treated at length in his
       autobiography and in  Discovering Alvarez,  cited  earlier.
       The  discovery  of  the  K-capture  process,  of  He(3), the
       extraordinary development  of  the  liquid  hydrogen  bubble
       chamber,  and  the  work  on  the comet-impact origin of the
       extinction  of  species,  are  evidence  of  a   person   of
       extraordinary  experimental talent.  But Luis was much more,
       in driving himself to find the most important application of
       his capabilities.

       Luis recounts his father's injunction "... to sit every  few
       months  in  my reading chair for an entire evening, close my
       eyes, and try to think of new problems to solve.  I took his
       advice very seriously and have been glad ever since  that  I

       Those  who  lack perfection in educational opportunity might
       take heart, "By almost any standard, my training at  Chicago
       had  been atrocious...   From another point of view, though,
       my training had been extraordinarily good.   I  could  build
       anything  out  of  metal  or  glass,  and 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."   And
       Alvarez characteristically would disappear for days into the
       library  at  Berkeley,  emerging  with  ideas,   plans   for
       experiments, explanations for puzzling results.

       Time  after  time,  Luis  showed that dogged but imaginative
       persistence that forced him not to stop with the first idea,
       because there might be a better one.   Repeatedly  he  would
       leap  to a conclusion and then strive to find evidence which
       would  refute it.  Alvarez was perpetually surprised to find
       individuals who do not challenge their own results, and  who
       can reject even the strongest contrary evidence.

       During WW II, Alvarez played a key role at the MIT Radiation
       Laboratory,  working  on  radar and other systems.  There he
       invented Vixen, which permitted radar-equipped aircraft once
       again to destroy surfaced German submarines.  After an early
       success, radar had become ineffective in this role,  because
       the   submarine's   radar-warning   receiver  indicated  the
       increase of signal as the aircraft approached on its  attack
       run.    Alvarez  thought  of reducing the radar power output
       inversely as the cube of the range to the submarine. As the
       aircraft approached, the submarine would detect decreasing
       radar  signal,  and  have no fear of impending attack, while
       the aircraft would receive a continuously increasing radar
       reflection  (returned  signal  energy  goes  as  the inverse
       fourth power of range).

       At the MIT Rad Lab, Luie and his group invented,  perfected,
       and   fielded  Ground-Controlled  Approach  (GCA)  to  allow
       ordinary aircraft and pilots to land at night  and  in  poor

       At  MIT  also,  Luis  also  contributed  greatly  to the MEW
       (Microwave Early Warning System) and the Eagle blind bombing
       system, although he  left  MIT  before  MEW  or  Eagle  were
       complete.    Like  GCA,  these  important  systems  used the
       Alvarez invention of the first microwave linear arrays  that
       were "electrically scannable," the phased array.

       After  six weeks in England to transplant GCA, Luie left MIT
       where he was head of Special Systems (also known  as  Luie's
       Gadgets)  to  work  on the first nuclear reactor with Enrico
       Fermi at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the  University  of

       Luie   soon   moved   to  Los  Alamos.     Among  his  major
       contributions  is   the   invention   and   development   of
       capacitor-discharge  bridgewire  detonators for simultaneous
       initiation of the multiple high-explosive  "lenses"  in  the
       implosion  system  of the plutonium bomb.  With a detonation
       wave speed in high explosive of some 8 km/s,  10 nanoseconds
       (one  "shake,"  as  it  was  called  at  Los  Alamos) timing
       uncertainty would cause about 0.1 mm asymmetry in the  shock
       wave; normal blasting caps demonstrated 10,000-times greater
       timing  variation.    Typical of Alvarez, the first trial of
       his invention involved firing a normal "bridgewire"  with  a
       capacitor  charged  to  15-kV  rather  than with the typical
       6-volt  battery.    The  necessary  improvement  in   timing
       accuracy was accompanied by improvement in safety because of
       the elimination of the more sensitive primer explosive.

       Returning  to Berkeley after World War II, Luis designed the
       first proton linear accelerator and  headed  the  team  that
       brought  it  into  operation.    He  also provided the first
       published   proposal   for   charge-exchange   accelerators,
       doubling the energy available in electrostatic acceleration,
       and (no small matter) allowing the ion source and the target
       region both to be at laboratory potential.

       After  WW II,  Alvarez  was  swept  up  in  an E.O. Lawrence
       passion to  build  a  large  deuteron  accelerator  for  the
       production  of  plutonium  for  nuclear  weapons;  for  once
       Alvarez did not himself look at the data  which  would  have
       convinced  him  that  there  was  plenty  of uranium for the
       reactor production route.  Recognizing that he  had  drifted
       far from experimental physics, he recast himself as research
       assistant  to  two  of  his  own research assistants.   This
       discipline and redirection  obviously  bore  fruit,  in  the
       Alvarez  work  on  particle  physics  with  hydrogen  bubble
       chambers for which he won the 1968 Nobel Prize, and  in  his
       commitment   to  technical  work  and  avoidance  of  formal
       management roles.  His intellectual curiosity and talent for
       experiment led him to conceive and to execute the "x-raying"
       of the pyramid of Khephren, by the use of cosmic-ray  muons,
       establishing that this pyramid had no hidden chamber.

       In  Alvarez's  long  and  broad  history,  it is striking to
       observe how some of his best and most practical  ideas  were
       only very much later brought to fruition by his own efforts,
       despite his early patents which would have been available to
       profit-minded   industry   at  relatively  low  cost.    The
       stabilized optical system for  binoculars  or  cameras  that
       Luie  invented  in  1963  while  his wife, Jan, lay ill with
       malaria in Kenya has only in the last few  years  been  sold
       (by  a  company  of which Jan is president) as a stabilizing
       zoom lens for shoulder-held video cameras,  despite  working
       systems  20  years earlier.   The same lag is found with the
       variable-power lens he invented and demonstrated to Polaroid
       more than 20 years ago,  first  appearing  on  the  consumer
       goods market (in the Polaroid Spectrum camera) in 1986.

       The  life of an inventor (even one in the Inventor's Hall of
       Fame, winner of the Collier Trophy in Aviation, etc.) may be
       a lot of fun, but  it  is  not  always  profitable;  Alvarez
       realized  the  first  profit  from any of his   40-some
       inventions just a few years ago.

       Luis Alvarez was very much aware of himself and carried into
       his  physics  the  constructive  competitive  spirit  he had
       learned early in athletics.  He was quick to judge, but also
       very much open to reason and to his  own  challenge  of  the
       validity  of  his  judgment.    "The most," "the best," "the
       first" were important to Luis,  in  others  as  well  as  in
       himself,  and  throughout  his  life  he  rejoiced  in being
       associated with the very best in physics, in  industry,  and
       in  government.   He wrote "Heroes have been important to my
       development as a scientist ...  In aviation my two principal
       heroes are Jimmy Doolittle and Chuck Yeager."   Luis  wrote,
       frankly  and  perceptively,  "Valuing  honors  myself,  I've
       worked hard to see to it that  my  favorite  candidates  win
       them  as  well,"  and  he  could  point to successes in that

       Luis enjoyed the broad spectrum of intelligent laymen at the
       summer  encampment  of   the   Bohemian   Club,   and   gave
       illuminating, enjoyable, and well-prepared talks there.

       Luis'  love of the unique shows itself in his description of
       his work in 1957 with a panel involved with the "Supersecret
       National Security Agency ...   We  were  the  first  outside
       panel  with  access to NSA secrets ...  I especially enjoyed
       learning in great  detail  from  William  Friedman  how  the
       United  States  broke  the  Japanese diplomatic codes before
       World War II."

       Luis W. Alvarez was a consummate engineer  and  technologist
       who  contributed  greatly to the evolution of productive and
       effective civil and military aviation.    His  knowledge  of
       technology  was essential to his outstanding achievements in
       physics, and his clever and deep inventions in the field  of
       optics may yet have the major impact that they deserve.

       1   Pronounced  in  the  Spanish  fashion as "Lou-eese," but
           almost everyone called him "Lou-ee," for  his  nickname,
       2   Alvarez, Adventures of a Physicist, by Luis W. Alvarez,
           Basic  Books,  Inc.,  New York (1987).  All unattributed
           quotations in this Tribute are from this book.
       3   Discovering  Alvarez,  edited  by  W. Peter Trower, the
           University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London  (1987).
           This  volume contains a list of Alvarez publications and
           patents through 1986, to  which  should  be  added  U.S.
           Patent  4,911,541, Inertial  Pendulum  Stabilizer  with
           Stephen F. Sporer issued on March 27, 1990.
       4   This   Tribute   draws   upon  my  review  of  "Alvarez:
           Adventures of a Physicist," published in Physics Today,
           pp. 83-84 (December 1987).