Luis Alvarez and his contributions to Physics

More often than not, as a child, when you watched a movie with dinosaurs in it, you might have wondered what happened to those cool creatures.

Growing up, you might have come across articles and or even read in schoolbooks how the dinosaurs disappeared from the face of the earth. The theory, which states that the mass extinction of dinosaurs was because of an asteroid or comet colliding earth, is the most popular one of all the reasons.

Luis Walter Alvarez, an American experimental scientist, inventor, and professor, first put this theory forward. In 1968, he was awarded Nobel Prize in Physics for his outstanding contribution to elementary particle physics. He was named to be the most brilliant and productive experimental physicist of the 20th century by the American Journal of Physics. 

Early life and significant contribution to the field of physics

Luis Walter Alvarez was born in San Francisco, California, on the 13th of June 1911. His father Walter C Alvarez was a physician and his grandfather Luis F. Alvarez was a Spanish physician. Luis was the second child and oldest son to his father. He graduated with a B.Sc. degree in 1932 from the University of Chicago, M.Sc. degree in 1934 and a Ph.D. degree in 1936.  

In the early days of his scientific career, Luis Alvarez co-discovered the East-West effect in Cosmic Rays. He conducted experiments under the guidance of the faculty advisor Arthur Compton who himself was a winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize winner in Physics. He was awarded the Nobel prize for his discovery which states that electromagnetic radiation (like visible light) has particle-like properties.

List of Luis Alvarez’s contribution.

  • K-electron capture: Just after one year later got his Ph.D. degree, in 1937, Luis Alvarez delivered his first experiment, which demonstrated the existence of K-electron captured by nuclei. This theory states that one of many ways radioactive atoms can transform into new elements is by the capture of an orbiting electron by the core. The electron of the atom combines with a proton to form a neutron, the process makes the atom lose a proton, and it becomes a new element.
  • In 1939, Luis Alvarez with his fellow physicist Felix Bloch determined the measurement of the magnetic moment of a neutron, for the first time.
  • Alvarez also had the experience of working microwave radar research at MIT and helped in the development of many military applications using the radar. During 1944-45, he also participated in the development of an atomic bomb.
  • Apart from all these, Luis Alvarez has also participated in the development of microwave beacons, ground-controlled landing approach system, and linear radar antennas. He also developed a technique with which the airplanes could use radar to locate targets for aerial bombing during the World War.
  • Just before the World War, Alvarez, accompanied by fellow scientists, found out the radioactivity of 3H (Tritium) and how it was stable enough to be a constituent of ordinary helium.

Information Sources:

In 1980, Luis Alvarez accompanied by his son Walter Alvarez (geologist by profession), nuclear chemists Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, claimed that they have uncovered about a calamity that shook the earth and was believed to be the reason of Dinosaurs’ extinction. In March 2010, a panel of 41 scientists backed the theory by providing how Chicxulub asteroid triggered the mass extinction.


Awards and medals for his notable works:

Apart from Nobel Prize in Physics, Luis Alvarez was awarded many other titles and honors in his lifetime, of which some are:

  • Collier Trophy of the National Aeronautics Association in 1946
  • Medal of Merit in 1947
  • California Scientist of the Year in 1960.
  • Albert Einstein Award in 1961
  • National Medal of Science in 1963.

With living a long 77 years, contributing many useful demonstrations and theories to Physics, he passed away on 1st September 1988. His legacy lives on with his contributions.