Donald Glaser (1926 - )


onald Glaser is the epitome of the “free-scientist.” Glaser’s original contributions came in physics, then he applied that knowledge, unbridled energy, and creative genius to three other scientific fields: molecular biology, biotechnology (he was a co-founder of what may be considered the first biotech company, Cetus Corporation), and, more recently, the Helen Wills Neuroscience institute at Berkeley (founding director).

It was his invention of the bubble chamber at the remarkably young age of 39 that the Nobel committee recognized as a true masterpiece. While a graduate student at Caltech, Glaser’s thesis required the use of two Wilson cloud-chambers – an awkward and ineffective system that Glaser was determined to improve. His intial contribution, a glass bulb about two centimeters wide, improved the cloud chamber as a detector of charged particles.

It was an experimental tool used so exhaustively by high-energy physicists in accelerator laboratories around the world that it touched nearly everything: the interior of atoms, the structure of particles, and the composition of matter. Much of what is known about particle physics has been discovered through the bubble chamber.

In 1960, Glaser arrived at Berkeley; the following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He next set out on an ambitious journey to map the E. coli genome. His “mutant” search extended his reach into molecular biology and served as an important part of the foundation of the emerging biotechnology industry.

The Momentum Distribution of Charged Cosmic Ray Particles Near Sea Level. Thesis by Donald Arthur Glaser,
Pasadena, California Institute of Technology, 1950
pages shown [title, table of contents, abstract]
[BANC MSS 2003/260 c, Ctn. 5]

Here Glaser began his work which resulted in the Nobel Prize ten years later.

“Methods of Particle Detection for High-Energy Physics Experiment,” by H. Bradner and D. A. Glaser
[BANC MSS 2003/260 c, Ctn. 18]

Glaser presented here his research leading to the bubble chamber, an early version of which is illustrated in the photographic images.

Letter from W. W. Drake to Donald A. Glaser, November 9, 1950
Letter from W. W. Drake to Donald A. Glaser, November 9, 1950
[BANC MSS 2003/260 c, Ctn. 6]


“ … we have few openings for the coming year.”

In 1959 the University found a place for Glaser. The following year he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.