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Leaders in Innovation

Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month and NIHF Inductee Luis Alvarez

Since 1989, National Hispanic Heritage Month has been celebrated across the United States from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to honor the contributions, histories and cultures of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Sept. 15 is the anniversary of independence for the countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala. Mexico and Chile’s independence days follow right after and are celebrated on Sept. 16 and 18, respectively.

National Hispanic Heritage Month invites all of us to come together and honor the value of diverse perspectives that can make our nation a beautiful place to learn and grow. In celebration of this time, we invite you to learn more about National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Luis Alvarez, a leader in the development of radar systems who pioneered the use of hydrogen bubble chambers to detect subatomic particles.


New Problems to Solve

Born on June 13, 1911, in San Francisco, California, from an early age Alvarez followed the advice of his father, Walter C. Alvarez, and dedicated a sizable amount of his time to simply sitting and thinking.

“He advised me to sit every few months for an entire evening, close my eyes and try to think of new problems to solve,” Alvarez recounts in his 1987 autobiography “Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist.”

Developing this natural curiosity came easy to Alvarez, and it informed his decision to pursue a degree in physics at the University of Chicago. After earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject in 1932, he stayed on as a graduate student, earning a master’s degree in 1934 and a doctorate in 1936.

While at the University of Chicago, Alvarez was fortunate enough to learn directly from the famous physicist, Arthur Compton. Compton was the foremost American researcher in cosmic-ray physics at the time, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927. Together, the two physicists published a scientific paper exploring the “east-west” effect found in cosmic radiation caused by Earth’s magnetic field.

Following the completion of his doctorate, Alvarez returned to California and landed a job as an experimental physicist at the University of California’s Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley.


A Man of Many Interests

In 1937, Alvarez created an experiment to prove the existence of a phenomenon known as “electron capture,” the process by which a radioactive atom transforms into new elements by capturing an orbiting electron. While this process had previously been hypothesized by others, it had never been observed. By searching for and detecting X-rays emitted from this capture process, he was able to establish this common occurrence in the world of physics.

During World War II he was responsible for the creation and development of three crucial radar systems: ground-controlled approach (a landing system for low visibility conditions), the microwave early warning system and the Eagle high-altitude bombing system. Additionally, he earned a patent for inventing a radio distance and direction indicator.

Following the war, he began developing large liquid hydrogen bubble chambers that were able to detect subatomic particles. This research led to the discovery of over 70 elementary particles and won Alvarez the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968.

In addition to his considerable expertise in the field of physics, Alvarez had a passion for solving some of the world’s great mysteries, from searching for hidden chambers within the Pyramids of Giza, to theorizing with his son Walter Alvarez that a giant asteroid was responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs. While this idea was at first considered incredibly controversial, today it remains “the most widely accepted theory for the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic Era.”


A Lasting Legacy

The use of hydrogen bubble chambers to identify subatomic particles has become a common practice in the field of physics, and generations of students and physics professionals alike continue to benefit from Alvarez’s technique.

To learn the stories behind more world-changing inventors, we invite you to visit our blog

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