Luis Walter Alvarez was an American physicist, inventor, and professor who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968. He was born in San Francisco on June 13, 1911, the second child and oldest son of Walter C. Alvarez, a physician, and his wife Harriet née Smyth.
His grandfather, Luis F. Álvarez, was a physician who lived in Spain, Cuba, and eventually the United States. In 1926, his father became a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, and the family moved to Rochester, Minnesota, where Alvarez attended Rochester High School. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1932, his master’s degree in 1934, and his PhD in 1936.
During World War II, Alvarez worked on numerous radar projects, including Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) radar beacons and a system known preventing enemy submarines from discovering that they had been detected by airborne microwave radars. The radar system for which Alvarez is most well known and played an important role in the post war Berlin airlift, was Ground Controlled Approach (GCA).
In the fall of 1943, Alvarez received an offer from Robert Oppenheimer to work at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. During his time working on the project, Alvarez developed a device that could be sent down from the aircraft to measure the strength of an atomic explosion. Using this device, Alvarez measured the blast effect of the Little Boy bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima.
In 1968 Alvarez won the Nobel Prize in Physics “For his decisive contributions to elementary particle physics, in particular the discovery of a large number of resonant states, made possible through his development of the technique of using hydrogen bubble chambers and data analysis.
In 1980 Alvarez and his son, geologist Walter Alvarez, along with nuclear chemists Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, published a paper proposing an extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction following geologic research in Central Italy. Ten years later evidence of a large impact crater was found off the coast of Mexico, lending support to the theory.
Alvarez died on September 1, 1988, due to complications from cancer.