10 Hispanic Scientists You Should Know

Luis Alvarez (1911-1988)
Father-and-son research team Luis and Walter Alvarez peer through a star dome, which shows the orbit and location, relative to Earth, of stars and constellations. The Alvarezes postulated that a giant asteroid or comet hit Earth millions of years ago, causing mass extinctions. © Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

A quick glance at Luis Alvarez's array of research and engineering projects reveals why colleagues described him as the "prize wild idea man." A sample: He built U.S. President Eisenhower an indoor golf-training machine, analyzed the Zapruder film and tried to locate an Egyptian pyramid's treasure chamber using cosmic rays [sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; PBS; Sullivan; Wohl].

In 1938, Alvarez identified orbital-electron capture, radioactive decay in which a nucleus absorbs an orbital electron. The following year, he and Felix Bloch pioneered measuring a neutron's magnetic moment, that is, its tendency to align with an applied magnetic field (an important clue that the neutrally charged particle is made of electrically charged fundamental particles). During World War II, he invented several radar applications, worked on the Manhattan Project and rode in a chase plane during the Enola Gay's Hiroshima bombing. After the war, he worked on the first proton linear accelerator and was awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize in physics for his work with elementary particles [sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; PBS; Sullivan; Wohl].

Physicists had already constructed cloud chambers and bubble chambers, which spotted speeding, charged particles via condensing vapor or boiling liquid. But tiny resonance particles, which existed for a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, were only detectable by the traces they left behind -- disintegration products and collision reactions with other particles. To tackle the task, Alvarez developed his own bubble chamber, camera stabilizers and a computerized system for analyzing bubble photographs. Together with the linear accelerators that he helped pioneer, these revolutionized the discovery of elemental particles, which he and his team discovered by the truckload [sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Nobel Prize; PBS; Sullivan; Wohl].