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Book Review : Luis Alvarez: Subatoms to Dinosaurs

September 01, 1987|LEE DEMBART

Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist by Luis W. Alvarez (Basic: $19.95; 292 pages)

Few Nobel laureates in the sciences go on to do important work after getting the prize.

There are several explanations for this. For one thing, the Nobel is typically awarded 10 or 15 years after the work it honors was done, by which time the distinguished scientist is past his prime.

For another, making a major contribution to science requires a tremendous amount of hard work, which most older, highly decorated scientists (or anyone, for that matter) are unwilling to do at that stage in their lives. The typical pattern is for Nobel-winners to move away from the laboratory and to expound on world peace and the future of humanity.

Luis W. Alvarez, emeritus professor of physics at UC Berkeley who won a Nobel Prize in 1968, is an exception. He states in this, his autobiography, he vowed on the morning he got the phone call from Stockholm that "I wouldn't sign petitions, and I wouldn't accept social invitations that were tendered only because of my Nobel Prize."

As a result, he has remained an active senior scientist, serving on the requisite high-level committees and presidential commissions, to be sure, but also continuing to spin out new ideas, including one that spurred the current thinking on what happened to the dinosaurs.

More about that in a moment. First a word or two about the book. "Alvarez" is a typical example of a scientist's life story. It is long on science and scientists and short on personal insight.

Not that that makes a bad yarn. Alvarez's life from his birth in San Francisco in 1911 to his distinguished position today has taken him through many important and interesting stops. He flew on an observation plane for the bombing of Hiroshima, which he recounts as the first chapter of the book.

What makes Alvarez different from so many of his colleagues is that he has continued to do science well into his eighth decade. And he notes that he may well be remembered not for anything he did in physics but for a contribution he made to geology, "a field about which I knew absolutely nothing until I was 66 years old."

The contribution he refers to is the discovery of the so-called iridium anomaly, the overabundance of the element iridium in clay sediment laid down 65 million years ago, just at the time that dinosaurs and many other forms of life abruptly became extinct.

This work has now been expanded by many others into the conjecture of periodic mass extinctions on Earth as a result of collisions with massive comets. The iridium is thought to have come from the comet, which, according to this idea, pumped so much dust and debris into the atmosphere that sunlight was blocked out and living things died. (This scenario has been further expanded into the theory of nuclear winter, under which the debris and smoke from an atomic war would block out sunlight and thereby destroy all remaining life.)

Alvarez's theory has sparked a mini-industry in itself. Many scientists in many disciplines are now doing work in an effort to add more facts to support this scenario. If it is true, Alvarez is right. He will be remembered more for this geological discovery than for all of his physics.

Which, after all, is only fair. In recounting the story of his life, Alvarez makes clear the important role that luck plays in many scientific discoveries. He tells how he almost discovered nuclear fission as well as the free neutrons that accompany fission (which make chain reactions possible), and he gives many other examples of discoveries that were made by one person that could have been made by someone else. But in each case of a near-discovery, all of the factors did not quite fall into place, as they did for somebody else.

Alvarez portrays the flavor of work in science and of the competition to be first and to win Nobel prizes. His long career has been marked by many stunning successes and more than a few disappointments. His book does all of them justice.

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