Early in his undergraduate career in the 1930’s at the University of Chicago, Luis Alvarez developed a keen interest in physics. Although thoroughly competent as a theorist, his greatest attraction was to experimental work: The study of radiation in the laboratory, rather than the conceptual intricacies of quantum mechanics or general relativity, was his forte.
Given his interests and his manifest abilities, the young Alvarez attracted the attention of Ernest Lawrence, the founder of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. Lawrence, perhaps the foremost experimental physicist in the United States, offered Alvarez a post at his laboratory. Alvarez remained at Berkeley throughout his long university career, and among the most moving passages in this book is his poignant tribute to Lawrence, his revered mentor and friend.
Experimental physics is no ivory tower affair, and Alvarez’s work frequently brought him in contact with the government. He took part in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, and he memorably describes the personality of the project’s director, his longtime Berkeley associate Robert Oppenheimer. More controversially, he defends the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan, in a passage dissenters will find provocative.
Alvarez’s foremost claim to eminence arises from his construction of a hydrogen bubble chamber, the nature and importance of which he explains briefly and nontechnically. For this work, he received a Nobel Prize in 1968; he describes the conferral of the award in Stockholm with great relish and well-merited delight. He concludes with a brief account of his retirement years, during which his research has continued. Alvarez seems seldom to fall prey to self-doubt and is little given to retrospect. His life, like his work, principally revolves around events and achievements. Readers interested in a vivid portrayal of the life of a major scientist will find this book illuminating.