Alvarez won the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physics for "the discovery of a large number of resonance states, made possible through his development of the technique of using hydrogen bubble chamber and data analysis". Specifically, his research made it possible to record and study the short lived particles created in particle accelerators.
During World War II, Alvarez was a key participant in the Manhattan Project and in war projects in general. Alvarez and his student Lawrence Johnston designed the detonators for the spherical implosives used on the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs. He additionally did important work relating to radar and aviation, and designed a system by which airplanes could land safely in low visibility conditions, useful both to bombers and commercial aviation. After the war he went on to invent the synchotron. He flew as a scientific observer at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
In 1980, with his son Walter Alvarez, a geologist, Luis proposed the asteroid-impact theory to explain the iridium anomaly of the K-T extinction boundary, the observed increased abundance of iridium in strata of that time. Ten years later, highly convincing evidence was presented showing that a huge impact crater called Chicxulub was, in fact, the "smoking gun" of the K-T boundary. This impact by an extraterrestrial body is now widely accepted as causing the extinction that killed the dinosaurs.
Alvarez also proposed a jet-recoil theory for the Kennedy assassination to explain why John F. Kennedy's head jerked backwards if Lee Harvey Oswald, shooting from behind the president, was the assassin.
- Alvarez, Luis W. Alvarez: Adventure of a Physicist, New York: Basic Books, 1987, ISBN 04650011
- Nobel biography
- About Luis Alvarez
- IEEE interview w/ Johnston, patentholder of the exploding-bridgewire detonator