Don Glaser, inventor of the bubble chamber, dies at 86


Donald Glaser, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose astonishing invention of the bubble chamber contributed to the postwar foundation of particle physics and whose subsequent forays into other fields presaged the viability of biotechnology, died Feb. 28 in Berkeley. The part-time Inverness resident was 86.

While physics was once the domain of theorists working alone with mathematical equations and small groups of experimentalists doing tabletop experiments, during the 1930s and 40s (before and after the World War II use of the atomic bomb) the field began to favor more industrial-scale projects: big machines using high amounts of energy to smash atoms together and examine the particles that flew out. The goal was to understand the most basic, yet mysterious, makeup of matter and radiation.

Scientists struggled to capture or even see the immensely rare particles that their machines produced, with devices called cloud chambers that left much to the imagination, until, at age 25, Dr. Glaser invented a thumbnail-size prototype of a device that showed the movement of particles in liquid. Dr. Glaser attempted to use beer but settled on other fluids.

The invention disproved the best efforts and predictions of scientists at the time. Unknown to Dr. Glaser, Enrico Fermi, a renowned physicist famed for his painstaking equations, had miscalculated that the device could not work; the United States Atomic Energy Commission and the National Science Foundation deemed the plan speculative and his research paper was rejected for using the invented word “bubblet.” A chance encounter at a lunch during a physics conference with atomic specialist Luis Alvarez brought the device to the attention of prominent scientists working with atom smashers, who built massive prototypes of the device and were amazed to discover that the idea worked.

The bubble chamber produced pictures of the paths taken by elementary particles, ornate patterns of lines and spirals, and the higher-quality data produced by the device showed that there was more to matter than protons and neutrons. “It was like a telescope into the atom,” said Frank Close, a theoretical physicist at Oxford University, who has written several books on the history of physics, including The Infinity Puzzle. “From the collection of what you discovered existed and how they behaved you started to realize not all of these particles were independent of each other.”

Theorists like Murray Gell-Mann developed a vocabulary for what these devices were unearthing—quarks, a more elemental subatomic particle—and bubble chambers provided further data. Dr. Glaser received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention in 1960, a year after he moved to the University of California, Berkeley from the University of Michigan.

“He was a tremendous inventor,” said Sheldon Glashow, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, in the same year that Dr. Glaser received his prize, for developing a theory of an elemental interaction in nature, called electroweak interaction, that was ultimately proven in 1973 by a bubble chamber experiment. “That was a dramatic discovery that was very important to the history of physics.”

The bubble chamber remained de rigueur for particle physics until it was mostly superseded by more efficient electrical devices by the 1980s. By then Dr. Glaser had long since left physics, because while the questions of the field were interesting, the large teams and slow processes involved in high-energy particle physics leached the fun out of science, he said.

“I was brought up to admire Einstein and all kinds of individuals who through individual effort and unique ideas and philosophy and whatever, talents—and composers, artists, writers—the people that I admired most were those who did incredible creative acts,” Dr. Glaser said in a 2004 oral history interview, decrying the rise of “big science.”

“Those who have a maverick personality will go into other fields. Those that can make that adjustment and be happy with it are going to be the ones that are productive in these massive fields of science. It’s not that high energy physics has become less interesting. It’s really exciting. I miss the participation and the scientific excitement, but it’s not worth the price. I’d just as soon read about it.”

Dr. Glaser used the academic acclaim he had earned from the Nobel Prize to consult scientific organizations and even the Kennedy administration, until he resigned over the Vietnam War.

Perhaps most crucially, he followed his passions and shifted his focus to the life sciences. Dr. Glaser experimented with bacteria through molecular biology, then a fledgling discipline, and studied visual perception and neurobiology before co-founding perhaps the world’s first biotech firm, Cetus Corp.

“Don lived in a golden age and he was the golden academic,” said Corey Goodman, who met Dr. Glaser when he served as the neuroscience department chair at UC Berkeley. Dr. Goodman, who lives in Marshall, said Dr. Glaser was a “dreamer” who would be incompatible with today’s “dog-eat-dog” competitive environment for scientific research. “A young Don Glaser would have a hard time not being disillusioned today.”

Donald Arthur Glaser was born on September 21, 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio to William, a businessman, and his wife, Lena, both Russian emigres. As a child he was bored in class and stared out of the window, so a teacher once recommended that he be sent to school for the “retarded.” He excelled in an IQ test, however, and continued in public schools.

His high school physics teacher was also the football coach, which Dr. Glaser said made for a bad introduction to the subject. He studied physics and mathematics, and discovered a passion for science, at the Case School of Applied Science, while playing viola in an orchestra.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Dr. Glaser took the liberty, to the confusion and dismay of several colleagues, to remake his academic career, taking a semester sampling introductory biology courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another semester as a postdoctoral fellow studying microbiology at the University of Copenhagen, according to Eric Vettel, author of the book, Biotech: The Countercultural Origins of an Industry. Observing biologists doing repetitive work in rows, he was struck by a new idea that could save them time.

That was the basis for the idea of the “dumbwaiter,” a stack of trays and pipettes holding ten Petri dishes, attached to “Cyclops,” a light that would allow a suspended camera to capture cultures growing over time.

Dr. Glaser returned to lab work and was eventually convinced to start a business called Berkeley Scientific Laboratories in 1966; short on ideas and facing hostility from academics opposed to applied science, the effort would fail. Worse, the atmosphere toward publicly funded science had soured nationally and in California, the National Institutes of Health cut Dr. Glaser’s funding and his first marriage was falling apart.

On the condition that he could stay out of administration, which he dreaded, Dr. Glaser agreed to participate in the 1971 founding of Cetus with a group of men who had backgrounds in medicine and venture capital. The partners, Moshe Alafi, Ron Cape and Peter Farley,

The company traded on the credibility of Dr. Glaser’s Nobel Prize and consulted with the large industrial companies on bioengineering projects. In its early years, Cetus did business with some of the sharpest minds out of Ivy League science programs, but without many of the disciplined professional standards and legal agreements standard in common industry practice today (maintaining company secrets, for instance, or spelling out who owned the rights to mutations of bacteria strains developed for antibiotics), according to Mr. Vettel.

Years later the company would create the polymerase chain reaction, a Nobel-awarded lab technique that amplifies DNA and detects pathogens. Cetus also developed two cancer therapies, interleukin and interferon. The company was sold in 1991 to Chiron Corp., which was itself acquired by Novartis International AG.

In 1972, Dr. Glaser met his second wife, the former Lynn Bercovitz. Dr. Glaser saw her, then a Berkeley graduate student, one night on a television show about harpsichords and classical music. “He got in touch with me afterwards and asked me if we wanted to play chamber music,” Mrs. Glaser, a painter and musician, said.

The couple, who lived in Berkeley, maintained a second home in Inverness, which they have frequented since 1981. Mrs. Glaser said the home allowed Dr. Glaser peace and quiet, and allowed him to pursue his interest in hiking, but the couple was also known for scintillating and wide-ranging discussions about politics, philosophy and art with friends.

“There are two kinds [of scientists]: hedgehogs and foxes,” Freeman Dyson, the physicist and public intellectual, said. “The fox is one who is interested in all kinds of things and the hedgehog is someone who concentrates on some narrow problem, and we need both undoubtedly. Certainly Glaser was a fox.”

Dr. Glaser is survived by his wife, Lynn Glaser; children, Louise and William; and four grandchildren. Mrs. Glaser asked that memorial donations be made to the Donald A. Glaser Advanced Lab at UC Berkeley’s Department of Physics. More information can be found at