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Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber (1960)

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A pressure cooker with windows? That was the basic idea behind the bubble chamber, a powerful instrument for the study of atomic particles that led to a 1960 Nobel Prize in Physics for its inventor, UC Berkeley professor Donald Glaser.

Donald GlaserGlaser first conceived of the bubble chamber in 1952, at the age of 25, while a faculty member at the University of Michigan. According to scientific lore, Glaser was enjoying a cold beer when he observed the stream of bubbles in his brew. It was a moment of saloon science that inspired a tool second only in importance to the cyclotron for atomic physicists.

The first bubble chamber, no bigger than its inventor's thumb, contained a clear, super-heated liquid in the path of charged atomic particles accelerated by an atom smasher. As the particles pushed through the liquid, they created a trail of tiny bubbles that could be photographed through the window of the chamber. Analyzing the bubbles provides physicists with insight about the particles and related forces.

Over the years, bubble chambers increased in size--surrounded by a magnet the size of a bus to control the particles--and capability as scientists around the world embraced the instrument. Indeed, Luis W. Alvarez, another Berkeley Nobel Laureate (Physics, 1968), and his colleagues, expanded on Glaser's work to develop their own hydrogen bubble chamber. The device enabled the researchers to discover many new resonance particles, subatomic particles with incredibly short lifetimes.

After consulting during the summers at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Glaser joined the University of California faculty in 1959. Five years later, he became a professor of physics and molecular biology at the university. Now a Professor of the Graduate School, Glaser's research has shifted to the construction of computational models that shed light on the physics and physiology of human perception.

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