Friday, October 3, 2014

A00221 - Donald Glaser, Nobel Winner in Physics

Donald Glaser, Nobel Winner in Physics, Dies at 86

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Donald A. Glaser, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1960 for inventing, at 25, an ingenious device called the bubble chamber to trace the paths of subatomic particles, died on Thursday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 86.

Associated Press
Donald A. Glaser in 1960 with the bubble chamber invention that won him the Nobel Prize in Physics.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lynn.
In creating the chamber, Dr. Glaser — a restless scientist who later turned to microbiology and developing cancer therapies — proved his most renowned skeptic, Enrico Fermi, a giant of 20th-century physics, wrong.
In the 1950s, physicists were becoming more adept at building powerful atom smashers to help decipher the building blocks of matter. But in breaking atoms apart they were often stymied in their efforts to identify the particles that flew out from the collisions.
Dr. Glaser’s bubble chamber generated data that enabled physicists to figure out that most particles of matter, like protons and neutrons, are composed of even smaller particles known as quarks.
“It was a very powerful technique,” said Nicholas Samios, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. “It was very instrumental in that period of physics.”
Dr. Glaser, who was teaching at the University of Michigan at the time, was fortunate that he did not know that Fermi had calculated that a bubble chamber would never work. Only afterward, after Fermi had invited Dr. Glaser to the University of Chicago to give a talk about the bubble chamber, did Dr. Glaser look up Fermi’s calculation in a thermodynamics textbook. There he found an erroneous equation.
“It’s just a small error, but that error made it possible for him to prove that it couldn’t work,” Dr. Glaser said of the bubble chamber in an oral history conducted by the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. “And luckily I didn’t know about his book because it would have turned me off. Instead, I did my own calculation, and it was hard, but that was the critical difference.”
After winning the Nobel, Dr. Glaser, frustrated that particle physics was adopting huge atom smashers requiring large teams of scientists, switched to molecular biology and studied bacteria and viruses.
In 1971, with two others, he helped found one of the first biotechnology companies, the Cetus Corporation, which developed the cancer therapies interleukin-2 and interferon. The company was sold in 1991 to Chiron Corporation, which is now part of Novartis.
In the 1980s, Dr. Glaser switched fields again, this time to study the neurobiology of vision. He began conducting experiments to understand how humans perceive motion and then developed mathematical models that mimicked that process.
“A little bit naïve in the very right way,” Tomaso Poggio, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of Dr. Glaser. “Naïve enough to be really original.”        
Donald Arthur Glaser was born on Sept. 21, 1926, in Cleveland, to William J. Glaser, a businessman, and his wife, Lena. After attending public schools, he received a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics in 1946 from the Case School of Applied Science, which later became part of Case Western Reserve University. He earned a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty at Michigan in 1949 and invented the bubble chamber in 1952, before his 26th birthday.
In the early ’50s, a gas-filled cloud chamber was the primary device for observing debris from atom smashers. As particles passed through the gas, which was on the verge of condensing, they left behind a trail of tiny droplets, which could be photographed.
But cloud chambers had limitations. “They’re harder to operate, and it wasn’t as easy to make them bigger,” Dr. Samios said.
Dr. Glaser replaced the gas with an unstable liquid. When a particle passed through, it left behind a trail of bubbles, which were then photographed. Because a liquid is denser than a gas, a bubble chamber could show a particle’s trajectory in greater detail than a cloud chamber could. “Fantastically better,” Dr. Samios said.
The first bubble chamber was just an inch wide, but physicists built larger and larger ones through the 1960s into the 1970s before other technologies superseded them.
In 1964, for example, Dr. Samios led a team that used an 80-inch bubble chamber at Brookhaven to discover a particle called the omega-minus, which helped confirm the quark theory.
Dr. Glaser moved from Michigan to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1959. He was 34 when he won the Nobel, in 1960.
Dr. Glaser’s first marriage, to Ruth Bonnie Thompson, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Lynn Bercovitz, he is survived by a daughter, Louise, and a son, William, both from his first marriage, and four grandchildren.
Dr. Glaser always denied popular accounts suggesting that he had been inspired to create the bubble chamber by staring at a glass of beer. “It’s totally wrong,” Dr. Glaser said in the oral history interview. “The story is perverted by journalists.”
But he did attempt to use beer in a bubble chamber as he looked for an alternative to the first liquid he used, an organic compound known as diethyl ether.
“Why fool around with all of these exotics?” Dr. Glaser recalled. “Water is probably out of the question, but I decided, ‘What the hell?’ ”
It didn’t work, but in heating the beer, it sprayed the ceiling, and the physics building stank of beer. That, he said, was a problem for two reasons. First, alcohol was not allowed within 500 yards of the campus.
“The other problem was that the chairman was a very devout teetotaler, and he was furious,” Dr. Glaser said. “He almost fired me on the spot.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 5, 2013
An earlier version of this obituary misidentified an organic compound that was the first liquid Dr. Glaser used in the bubble chamber. It was diethyl ether, not diethyl ester. Because of an editing error, the obituary also referred incorrectly to the college from which Dr. Glaser received his bachelor’s degree. It was the Case School of Applied Science, which later became part of Case Western Reserve University; it was not “what became the Case Western University.”


Donald Arthur Glaser (September 21, 1926 – February 28, 2013) was an American physicistneurobiologist, and the winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the bubble chamber used in subatomic particle physics.[1][2][3]


Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Glaser completed his Bachelor of Science degree in physics and mathematics from Case School of Applied Science[2]:10 in 1946. He completed his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1949. Glaser accepted a position as an instructor at the University of Michigan in 1949, and was promoted to professor in 1957. He joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, in 1959, as a Professor of Physics. During this time his research concerned short-lived elementary particles. The bubble chamber enabled him to observe the paths and lifetimes of the particles.
Starting in 1962, Glaser changed his field of research to molecular biology, starting with a project on ultraviolet-induced cancer. In 1964, he was given the additional title of Professor of Molecular Biology. Glaser's position (since 1989) was Professor of Physics and Neurobiology in the Graduate School.

Personal life[edit]

Donald Glaser was born on September 21, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Russian Jewish immigrants, Lena and William J. Glaser, a businessman.[4][5] He enjoyed music and played the piano, violin, and viola. He went to Cleveland Heights High School, where he became interested in physics as a means to understand the physical world.[2]:2,6,8He died in his sleep at the age of 86 on February 28, 2013 in Berkeley, California.[6]

Education and early career[edit]

Glaser attended Case School of Applied Science (now Case Western Reserve University), where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics in 1946. During the course of his education there, he became especially interested in particle physics.[2]:15 He played viola in the Cleveland Philharmonic while at Case, and taught mathematics classes at the college after graduation.[2]:12 He continued on to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he pursued his Ph.D. in physics. His interest in particle physics led him to work with Nobel laureate Carl David Anderson, studying cosmic rays with cloud chambers.[2]:22 He preferred the accessibility of cosmic ray research over that of nuclear physics. While at Caltech he learned to design and build the equipment he needed for his experiments,[2]:22 and this skill would prove to be useful throughout his career. He also attended molecular genetics seminars led by Nobel laureate Max Delbrück;[2]:20 he would return to this field later. Glaser completed his doctoral thesis, The Momentum Distribution of Charged Cosmic Ray Particles Near Sea Level, after starting as an instructor at the University of Michigan in 1949.[2]:28 He received his Ph.D. from Caltech in 1950, and he was promoted to Professor at Michigan in 1957.[2]:43

Bubble chamber[edit]

Main article: Bubble Chamber

A bubble chamber.
While teaching at Michigan, Glaser began to work on experiments that led to the creation of the bubble chamber.[2]:37 His experience with cloud chambers at Caltech had shown him that they were inadequate for studying elementary particles. In a cloud chamber, particles pass though gas and collide with metal plates that obscure the scientists’ view of the event. The cloud chamber also needs time to reset between recording events and cannot keep up with accelerators' rate of particle production.[2]:31–32
He experimented with using superheated liquid in a glass chamber. Charged particles would leave a track of bubbles as they passed through the liquid, and their tracks could be photographed. He created the first bubble chamber with ether.[2]:37–38 He experimented with hydrogen while visiting the University of Chicago, showing that hydrogen would also work in the chamber.[2]:44
It has often been claimed that Glaser was inspired to his invention by the bubbles in a glass of beer; however, in a 2006 talk, he refuted this story, saying that although beer was not the inspiration for the bubble chamber, he did experiments using beer to fill early prototypes.[7]
His new invention was ideal for use with high-energy accelerators,[2]:47 so Glaser traveled to Brookhaven National Laboratory with some students to study elementary particles using the accelerator there. The images that he created with his bubble chamber brought recognition of the importance of his device, and he was able to get funding to continue experimenting with larger chambers. Glaser was then recruited by Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez,[2]:59 who was working on a hydrogen bubble chamber at the University of California at Berkeley. Glaser accepted an offer to become a Professor of Physics there in 1959.[2]:60

Nobel Prize[edit]

Glaser was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize for Physics for the invention of the bubble chamber. His invention allowed scientists to observe what happens to high-energy beams from an accelerator, thus paving the way for many important discoveries.[2]:64–65

Transition to molecular biology[edit]

After winning the Nobel Prize, Glaser began to think about switching from physics into a new field. He wanted to concentrate on science, and found that as the experiments and equipment grew larger in scale and cost, he was doing more administrative work. He also anticipated that the ever-more-complex equipment would cause consolidation into fewer sites and would require more travel for physicists working in high-energy physics.[2]:68 Recalling his interest in molecular genetics that began at Caltech, Glaser began to study biology. He spent a summer at MIT as a visiting professor and attended biology seminars there. He also spent a semester in Copenhagen with Ole Maaloe, the prominent Danish molecular biologist.[2]:72
He worked in UC Berkeley’s Virus Lab (now the Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory),[2]:76 doing experiments with bacterial phagesbacteria, and mammalian cells. He studied the development of cancer cells, in particular the skin cancer xeroderma pigmentosum.[2]:69 As with the bubble chamber, he used his experience designing equipment to improve the experimental process. He automated the process of pouring out agar, spreading culture, and counting colonies of cells using a machine he called the dumbwaiter. It took photographs, administered chemicals, and had a mechanical hand to pick up colonies.[2]:76–77

Commercial ventures[edit]

While continuing to work at UC Berkeley, Glaser started Berkeley Scientific Laboratory with Bill Wattenberg in 1968. The short-lived partnership worked on automating diagnostic procedures.[2]:88
In 1971 he founded Cetus Corporation with Moshe Alafi, Ron Cape, and Peter Farley.[2]:89–90 Glaser’s position was Chairman of the Science Advisory Board.[2]:96 The founders felt that the knowledge scientists had gained about DNA had not yet been applied to solve real problems.[2]:112 The company did microbial strain improvement,[2]:96–97 and then genetic engineering,[2]:110 becoming the first biotechnology company. Cetus was purchased by Chiron Corporation in 1991.[2]:115

Transition to neurobiology[edit]

As molecular biology became more dependent on biochemistry, Glaser again considered a career change. His experience automating visual tasks in physics and molecular biology led him to an interest in human vision and how the brain processes what is seen. He began to work on computational modeling of the visual system and visual psychophysics.[2]:116

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