Donald Arthur Glaser


Donald Arthur Glaser was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 21, 1926, the son of William J. Glaser, a businessman, and his wife Lena. He received his early education in the public schools of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and took his B.Sc. degree in physics and mathematics at the Case Institute of Technology in 1946. His first original research is described in his bachelor’s thesis and consists of an electron diffraction study of the properties of thin metallic films evaporated onto crystalline metal substrates.

After serving as a teacher of mathematics at the Case Institute of Technology during the spring of 1946, he began his graduate study at the California Institute of Technology in the autumn of the same year, finishing his Ph.D. work in the autumn of 1949, and receiving his degree in physics and mathematics officially in 1950. His doctoral thesis research was an experimental study of the momentum spectrum of high energy cosmic ray and mesons at sea level.

Glaser began his career of full-time teaching and research in the Physics Department of the University of Michigan in the autumn of 1949, being promoted to the rank of Professor in 1957. In 1959 he became Professor of Physics at the University of California, at Berkeley. His main research interest during this period was the elementary particles of physics, particularly the strange particles. He examined various experimental techniques that seemed useful in this research and constructed a number of diffusion cloud chambers and parallel-plate spark counters before finally beginning to develop the ideas that led to the invention of the bubble chamber in 1952. Since then he has worked on the development of various types of bubble chambers for experiments in high energy nuclear physics, besides carrying out experiments on elementary particles at the Cosmotron of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Bevatron of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in California. These experiments gave information on the lifetimes, decay modes, and spins of the L° hyperon, K° meson and S° hyperon as well as differential cross-sections for the production of those particles by pions.

Other experiments yielded information on pion-proton scattering, parity violation in non-leptonic hyperon decay, and the branching ratios in positive K meson decay.

All these experiments and technical developments of the past six years were carried out in collaboration with a number of his thesis students and colleagues at the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked from 1959. Among his associates in research were J. Brown, H. Bryant, R. Burnstein, J. Cronin, C. Graves, R. Hartung, J. Kadyk, D. Meyer, M. Perl, D. Rahm, B. Roe, L. Roellig, D. Sinclair, G. Trilling, J. van der Velde, J. van Putten and T. Zipf.

These researches were supported originally by the University of Michigan and later by the National Science Foundation of the United States and the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

Glaser has received many honours for his work, among which can be mentioned the Henry Russell Award of the University of Michigan, 1953, for distinction and promise in teaching and research; the Charles Vernon Boys Prize of the Physical Society, London, in 1958, for distinction in experimental physics; the American Physical Society Prize (sponsored by the Hughes Aircraft Company) for his contributions to experimental physics in 1959; and the award, in the same year, of the honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the Case Institute of Technology.

1960, the year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, also saw Professor Glaser’s marriage to Miss Ruth Bonnie Thompson.

He has two children by his first marriage, Louise Ferris Glaser, a pediatrician, and William Thompson Glaser, CEO of a computer-related company. The family now includes four granddaughters. In 1975 he married Lynn Bercovitz, a painter and musician. They reside in Berkeley, California.

From Nobel Lectures, Physics 1942-1962, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1964

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1960

Addendum, March 2005

Glaser turned away from physics in 1962 to explore the new field of molecular biology, which had fascinated him from his time in graduate school at Caltech. In those days, Professor Max Delbrück, another physicist, led a very exciting seminar on the work he and others were doing on the genetics of microorganisms, which previously had been thought to have no genetics. It turned out that the genetic molecules, DNA and RNA, in those organisms were the same as those in human cells, thereby establishing the scientific basis for the biotechnology industry. In addition to studying the control of DNA synthesis in bacteria, Glaser and his students showed that certain mutations in cultivated Chinese hamster ovary cells caused abnormal sensitivity to ultraviolet light which could convert these mutated cells into cancer cells. The seven genes involved in this process are also found in humans, where the same defects lead to a human cancer called xeroderma pigmentosum in which patients can lead normal cancer-free lives only if they avoid exposure to daylight.

In about 1970, the new field of molecular biology was producing remarkably detailed knowledge which had not been very extensively applied to medical and other applications. Motivated by this observation, Glaser and two friends co-founded the first biotechnology company, thus starting an industry that is having great success in bringing the fruits of molecular biology to applications in medicine and agriculture.

As molecular biology became industrialized and came to depend on very sophisticated biochemical and molecular technologies, Glaser began to work in neurobiology, another long term interest of his. The human visual system is the best known part of the brain, accounting for about one third of all the neurons in the cerebral cortex. Since its “wiring diagram” is known in considerable detail, computational models of human vision can be used to make predictions about human and monkey visual abilities which are testable by psychophysical and electrophysiological methods. These models have yielded descriptions of the perception of motion and depth and have made predictions concerning two surprising illusory motion effects that are being tested now by Glaser and his research group by psychophysical methods in humans and by collaboration with other groups by electrophysiological methods in monkeys.

In the years since 1960, Glaser has been a consultant and advisor to many governmental organizations, industrial boards of directors, non-profit groups, and a member of the editorial boards of several scientific publications.

Donald A. Glaser died on 28 February 2013.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2005

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