Glaser, Donald Arthur

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GLASER, Donald Arthur

(b. 21 September 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio), physicist who received the 1960 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the bubble chamber, a scientific instrument that opened up a new world for nuclear physics.

The son of William J. Glaser, a businessman, and Lena, both Russian immigrants, Glaser went through the Cleveland Heights, Ohio, public schools, graduating at the age of sixteen. At age twenty he earned a B.S. in physics from Case Institute of Technology (later Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland. Glaser then entered the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he finished his Ph.D. work in 1949, although he officially received the degree in physics and mathematics in 1950. A year before he received his Ph.D., he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. During summers in the 1950s, Glaser served as a consultant at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California. In September 1959 he joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and was named a professor of physics and molecular biologyin 1964; he remained at Berkeley for the rest of his career. On 28 November 1960 Glaser married Ruth Thompson; the couple had two children.

Glaser had an interest in elementary particle physics, especially in the behavior of high-energy particles. The world of particle physics research had opened up with C. T. R. Wilson's invention of the cloud chamber at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the cloud chamber's detection capabilities were limited to low-energy particles. By the 1960s newly developed particle accelerators ("atom smashers") were producing high-energy particles of up to twenty-five billion volts—energies 1,000 times larger than the voltages observable with the cloud chamber.

At Michigan, Glaser began experimenting with methods for studying the high-energy particles that could be produced with the new accelerators. In a cloud chamber, a stream of liquid droplets condensing from a subcooled vapor provided jet-stream images of the charged particles. Glaser instead looked at using a denser medium—superheated liquid in which high-energy charged particles could produce tracks of gas bubbles. The principle sounded simple, but developing it was challenging. Glaser worked for several years to perfect the first radiation-sensitive bubble chamber. He succeeded by applying the physics of bubble formation, developing a pressurized container of superheated liquid that he described as "a pressure cooker with windows."

One month after his thirty-fourth birthday, in 1960, Glaser became the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for his development of the bubble chamber. In presenting the prize to Glaser, the physicist Kai M. Siegbahn recalled the 1959 discovery of "anti-particles" using the bubble chamber, explaining, "One could say that Glaser's bubble chamber is an anti-Wilson chamber. Particle tracks in Glaser's chamber are composed of small gas bubbles in a liquid," as opposed to small liquid droplets in a gas chamber. Siegbahn added, "Glaser's idea was that an atomic particle passing through the liquid would be able to provoke boiling by means of the ions which the atomic particle produces along its path and which act as bubble development centers." By placing a camera at the "window" to take flash pictures immediately after a particle passes through the chamber, scientists could get a record of the bubble track. From the trails, they could then study atomic nuclei and the forces that hold them together.

During the 1960s there was a particle discovery explosion in nuclear physics, which was made possible by Glaser's invention of the bubble chamber. His first bubble chamber, constructed in 1952, had been about one inch long by one-half inch in diameter; by the 1960s bubble chambers were the size of buildings and required a magnet the size of a locomotive. The same year Glaser made his first successful bubble chamber, the Brookhaven Cosmotron, a 1.3 GeV (giga electron volts) accelerator, started operation. Glaser carried out experiments on elementary particles at the Cosmotron and also at the Bevatron accelerator in the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

After moving to the University of California, Berkeley, Glaser changed his field of study to research the internal control systems of the simplest bacterial cells. Again he developed the tools he needed, this time building large-scale automated equipment to study how the cells functioned, including how they reproduced, overcame threats from the environment, and optimized growth opportunities. The equipment Glaser developed was later used in medicine, pollution monitoring, the genetic studies of cells of higher organisms, and the study of the effects of carcinogenic and growth-inhibiting agents.

Glaser's next research focus concerned psychophysics and the sensory physiology of human perception. In particular, he worked to construct computational models of the human visual system that would explain its performance in terms of its physiology and anatomy. In addition to the 1960 Nobel Prize in physics, Glaser received numerous awards, among them the Gold Medal award from the Case Institute of Technology (1967), the distinguished fellow designation from the Smith-Kettlewell Institute for Vision Research (1983–1984), and the American Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate award (1989).

From the first publication of Glaser's ideas, his experiments were recognized by other scientists as having the potential to make an important contribution to the study of particle physics. Others helped to develop bubble chambers, but the Nobel Prize committee saw Glaser as "the one who made the really fundamental contributions." In the 1960 Nobel Prize citation, the presenter noted, "It is unusual for a development of modern physics to be due to such a large extent to one single man." Glaser's bubble chambers have been described as the "factories of physics," because they enabled a wealth of high-energy physics information to be collected during the 1960s and 1970s.

Biographies of Glaser include information in the Nobel archives, Donald Arthur Glaser—Biography (1960); Harriet Zuckerman, Scientific Elites: Nobel Laureates in the United States (1977); and Russell Schoch, The Nobel Tradition at Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley (1984).

M. C. Nagel

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