The Father

In a picture taken at the MIT Radiation Laboratory during World War II, his hat at a jaunty angle and a cigarette dangling from his lips, a cocky smile on his face and a coil of wire strung around his neck, Luis Alvarez appears not as the stereotypical dull, introverted scientist but more like a cross between Indiana Jones and Humphrey Bogart (Figure 1). He was a man who lived life to the fullest and continued seeking new challenges long after most would have begun to rest on their laurels.

Luis's father, Walter Alvarez, after whom Luis named his son, was a well-known San Francisco physician who encouraged Luis's early interest in science. In 1922, when only 11, Luis surprised family friends by demonstrating the first crystal set any of them had seen. His talent for constructing apparatus of various sorts would last a lifetime. After his father moved to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Luis spent his summers during high school helping out in the clinic machine shop, where he became a self-described "good pupil." He began his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago first as a chemistry major and then switched to physics, which became his constant and lifelong love. To call a person a physicist was to Luis Alvarez the highest praise. Physicists were a breed apart, cleverly applying their superior minds to the most interesting and important problems. He logically enough titled his autobiography Adventures of a Physicist.'

Luis launched his scientific career by moving to the University of California at Berkeley, where in 1936 he went to work with

FIGURE I Luis Alvarez at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, September 1943. [Photo courtesy of University of California Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.]

Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and one of the most influential American scientists in history. Lawrence was mentor to many who later made their mark; several, like Luis, were to follow him in winning the Nobel Prize.

"If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble," wrote Sir Peter Medawar.3 To choose a problem that cannot be solved, or one that need not be solved in order for a field to advance, is to delay the progress of both science and career. Luis Alvarez understood Medawar's point and proved a master at selecting the next important problem and designing just the piece of apparatus to solve it.

By his own description, his style was to "flit" from research problem to research problem, often to the consternation of his co-workers and students and especially his mentor, Lawrence. But during a period when physics was advancing rapidly and opportunities abounded, his method made him unusually versatile and productive. In the early days of World War II, he worked to improve the radar system that played such a crucial role in the Allied victory. From there, he went to Los Alamos to become one of the key scientists in the development of the atomic bomb. Two unusual proj ects that came later in his career showed his willingness to step outside physics if a problem piqued his curiosity or appeared sufficiently important. One was his use of cosmic rays, in X-ray-like fashion, to determine whether, as Luis suspected but most Egyptologists doubted, the Second Pyramid of Chephren contained undiscovered burial chambers. Luis was never reluctant to fly in the face of conventional wisdom in a field outside his own and to conduct an experiment to see who was right. In this case, however, as he readily admitted, he was proven wrong. When people who knew of his work would say, "I hear you did not find a chamber," Luis would reply, "No, we found there wasn't any chamber."4 To seek but not to find a chamber is to find an absence of evidence. To determine that there was no chamber was to find evidence of absence. This is a distinction with a difference, the importance of which would turn up years later in the dinosaur extinction controversy.

His greatest public notice came from his investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy, particularly from his meticulous and inventive analysis of the Zapruder film. One frame showed JFK's head moving sharply backward as the third and fatal bullet struck, providing evidence to assassination buffs that a second gunman had fired from the front. Surely, common sense tells us, a head snapped backward by the impact of a bullet identifies the shot as having come from the front. Since by then Oswald was located behind the presidential limousine, this could only mean that a second gunman fired and therefore that there had been a conspiracy. But here common sense leads us astray: Luis showed that the laws of physics, when all (including the most gruesome) factors are taken into account, are entirely consistent with a shot from the rear causing the backward snap of JFK's head. Luis conducted experiments to prove the point but admitted that they failed to convince the buffs; years later, he would have a similar difficulty in convincing paleontologists that a random catastrophe had extinguished their dinosaurs.

The most dramatic moment of an unusually exciting early career came aboard the Great Artiste, the plane that accompanied the Enola Gay on its fateful mission over Hiroshima in August '945. Weeks earlier Alvarez had been high above the New Mexico desert observing the Trinity atomic bomb test. He was thus one of only a handful to witness both of the first two atomic explosions. As the Great Artiste returned to its base on Tinian, Hiroshima destroyed in its wake, Luis wrote a letter for his son Walter, then 4 years old, to read when he was older.

Today, the lead plane of our little formation dropped a single bomb which probably exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of high explosive. That means that the days of large bombing raids, with several hundred planes, are finished. A single plane disguised as a friendly transport can now wipe out a city. That means to me that nations will have to get along together in a friendly fashion, or suffer the consequences of sudden sneak attacks which can cripple them overnight.

What regrets I have about being a party to killing and maiming thousands of Japanese civilians this morning are tempered with the hope that this terrible weapon we have created may bring the countries of the world together and prevent further wars. Alfred Nobel thought that his invention of high explosives would have that effect, by making wars too terrible, but unfortunately it had just the opposite reaction. Our new destructive force is so many thousands of times worse that it may realize Nobel's dream.5

While Luis's desire that the existence of nuclear weapons would prevent further wars was not fulfilled, knowledge of their destructive power may have averted a third world war, validating his hope. What no one could have predicted is that, 35 years after his letter was written, father and son would discover evidence of an explosion so enormous as to dwarf even the awful one that Luis had just witnessed.

When Dale Russell's paper on dinosaur extinction appeared in 1979, Luis Alvarez was 68 years old. Eleven years earlier, he had reached the pinnacle of scientific success, receiving the Nobel Prize in physics for his work in developing the hydrogen bubble chamber, which led to the discovery of many new subatomic particles. His Nobel citation was one of the longest on record. Ninety-nine of one hundred scientists, having had such a career, would have been content to rest on their laurels, perhaps becoming scientific elder statesmen who tread the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Indeed, such a course might have tempted Luis, for particle physics was no longer the game that he had helped to invent. Finding new particles required higher and higher energies, and more and more money, changing particle physics into the biggest of big science. Papers emanating from such facilities as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and CERN, the European consortium housed in Geneva, often had dozens, even scores, of "co-authors." This was not the way Luis had succeeded in science. If not quite a lone wolf, he had at least been the alpha of a small pack.

But in the twilight of a career, even the most inventive of minds may require a spark. Although Luis confessed a notable lack of ex citement about geology, his son's chosen field, in best fatherly fashion he spent many hours in discussion with Walter, each describing his scientific work to the other. Luis noted that "the close personal relationship Walt and I enjoyed dissolved the cross-disciplinary barriers."6 One day in the mid-1970s, returning from a field trip to Italy, Walter produced a geological specimen that, for once, his father did find exciting; Luis would later say that it had "rejuvenated" his scientific career.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Responses

  • teagan
    Where in minnesota was the HADROSAURIDAE dinosaurs found?
    9 years ago

Post a comment