Donald A. Glaser

Donald A. Glaser

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Donald Arthur Glaser is an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

A physicist is a scientist who studies or practices physics. Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena in many branches of physics spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic particles of which all ordinary matter is made to the behavior of the material Universe as a whole...

, neurobiologist, and Nobel Prize in Physics
Nobel Prize in Physics
The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded once a year by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895 and awarded since 1901; the others are the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Nobel Prize in Literature, Nobel Peace Prize, and...

 laureate for his invention of the Bubble chamber
Bubble chamber
A bubble chamber is a vessel filled with a superheated transparent liquid used to detect electrically charged particles moving through it. It was invented in 1952 by Donald A. Glaser, for which he was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physics...

 used in subatomic particle
Subatomic particle
In physics or chemistry, subatomic particles are the smaller particles composing nucleons and atoms. There are two types of subatomic particles: elementary particles, which are not made of other particles, and composite particles...


Born in Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland is a city in the U.S. state of Ohio and is the county seat of Cuyahoga County, the most populous county in the state. The city is located in northeastern Ohio on the southern shore of Lake Erie, approximately west of the Pennsylvania border...

, Glaser completed his B.Sc. degree in physics and mathematics from the Case Western Reserve University
Case Western Reserve University
Case Western Reserve University is a private research university located in Cleveland, Ohio, USA...

 in 1946. He completed his Ph.D.
A Ph.D. is a Doctor of Philosophy, an academic degree.Ph.D. may also refer to:* Ph.D. , a 1980s British group*Piled Higher and Deeper, a web comic strip*PhD: Phantasy Degree, a Korean comic series* PhD Docbook renderer, an XML renderer...

 in physics from the California Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
The California Institute of Technology is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering...

 in 1949. Glaser accepted a position as an instructor at the University of Michigan
University of Michigan
The University of Michigan is a public research university located in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States. It is the state's oldest university and the flagship campus of the University of Michigan...

, and was promoted to professor in 1957. He joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, in 1959, as a Professor of Physics. During this time his research concerned short-lived elementary particles. The bubble chamber enabled him to observe the paths and lifetimes of the particles.

Starting in 1962, Glaser changed his field of research to molecular biology, starting with a project on ultraviolet
Ultraviolet light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than that of visible light, but longer than X-rays, in the range 10 nm to 400 nm, and energies from 3 eV to 124 eV...

-induced cancer. In 1964, he was given the additional title of Professor of Molecular Biology. Glaser's current position (since 1989) is Professor of Physics and Neurobiology in the Graduate School.


Donald Glaser was born on September 21, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Russian immigrants. He enjoyed music and played the piano, violin, and viola. He went to Cleveland Heights High School
Cleveland Heights High School
Cleveland Heights High School is the senior high school of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District.-History:Cleveland Heights High School was founded in 1901...

, where he became interested in physics as a means to understand the physical world.

Education and First Job

Glaser attended Case Institute of Technology, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics in 1946. During the course of his education there he became especially interested in particle physics. He played viola in the Cleveland Philharmonic while at Case, and taught mathematics classes at the college after graduation. He continued on to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he pursued his Ph.D. in physics. His interest in particle physics led him to work with Nobel laureate Carl Anderson, studying cosmic rays with cloud chambers. He preferred the accessibility of cosmic ray research over that of nuclear physics. While at Caltech he learned to design and build the equipment he needed for his experiments, and this skill would prove to be useful throughout his career. He also attended molecular genetics seminars led by Nobel laureate Max Delbruck; he would return to this field later.
Glaser completed his doctoral thesis, “The Momentum Distribution of Charged Cosmic Ray Particles Near Sea Level,” after starting as an instructor at the University of Michigan in 1949. He received his Ph.D. from Caltech in 1950, and he was promoted to Professor at Michigan in 1957.

Bubble Chamber

While teaching at Michigan, Glaser began to work on experiments that led to the creation of the bubble chamber. His experience with cloud chambers at Caltech had shown him that they were inadequate in studying strange particles. In a cloud chamber, particles pass though gas and collide against metal plates that obscure the scientists’ view of the event. The cloud chamber also needs time to reset between recording events and cannot keep up with the high-energy accelerators used in studying strange particles.

He experimented with using superheated liquid in a glass chamber. The strange particles would leave a track of bubbles as they passed through the liquid, and their tracks could be photographed. He created the first bubble chamber with ether. He experimented with hydrogen while visiting the University of Chicago, showing that hydrogen would also work in the chamber.

It has often been claimed that Glaser was inspired to his invention by the bubbles in a glass of beer
Beer is the world's most widely consumed andprobably oldest alcoholic beverage; it is the third most popular drink overall, after water and tea. It is produced by the brewing and fermentation of sugars, mainly derived from malted cereal grains, most commonly malted barley and malted wheat...

; however, in a 2006 talk, he refuted this story, saying that although beer was not the inspiration for the bubble chamber, he did experiments using beer to fill early prototype
A prototype is an early sample or model built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from.The word prototype derives from the Greek πρωτότυπον , "primitive form", neutral of πρωτότυπος , "original, primitive", from πρῶτος , "first" and τύπος ,...


His new invention was ideal for use with high-energy accelerators, so Glaser traveled to Brookhaven National Laboratory with some students to study strange particles using the accelerator there. The images that he created with his bubble chamber brought recognition of the importance of his device, and he was able to get funding to continue experimenting with larger chambers. Glaser was then recruited by Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez, who was working on a hydrogen bubble chamber at the University of California at Berkeley. Glaser accepted an offer to become a Professor of Physics there in 1959.

Nobel Prize

Glaser was awarded a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1960 for the invention of the bubble chamber. His invention allowed scientists to observe what happens to high-energy beams from an accelerator, thus paving the way for many important discoveries.

Transition to Molecular Biology

After winning the Nobel Prize, Glaser began to think about switching from physics into a new field. He wanted to concentrate on science, and found that as the experiments and equipment grew larger in scale and cost, he was doing more administrative work. He also anticipated that the ever more complex equipment would cause consolidation into fewer sites and would require more travel for physicists working in high-energy physics.
Recalling his interest in molecular genetics that began at Caltech, Glaser began to study biology. He spent a summer at MIT as a visiting professor and attended biology seminars there. He also spent a semester in Copenhagen with Ole Maaloe, the prominent Danish molecular biologist.

He worked in UC Berkeley’s Virus Lab (now the Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory), doing experiments with bacterial phages, bacteria, and mammalian cells. He studied the development of cancer cells, in particular the skin cancer xeroderma pigmentosum. As with the bubble chamber, he used his experience designing equipment to improve the experimental process. He automated the process of pouring out agar, spreading culture, and counting colonies of cells using a machine he called the dumbwaiter. It took photographs, administered chemicals, and had a mechanical hand to pick up colonies.

Commercial Ventures

While continuing to work at UC Berkeley, Glaser started Berkeley Scientific Laboratory with Bill Wattenberg in 1968. The short-lived partnership worked on automating diagnostic procedures.

In 1971 he founded Cetus Corporation with Moshe Alafi, Ron Cape, and Peter Farley. Glaser’s position was Chairman of the Science Advisory Board. The founders felt that the knowledge scientists had gained about DNA had not yet been applied to solve real problems. The company did microbial strain improvement, and then genetic engineering, becoming the first biotechnology company. Cetus was purchased by Chiron Corporation in 1991.

Transition to Neurobiology

As molecular biology became more dependent on biochemistry, Glaser again considered a career change. His experience automating visual tasks in physics and molecular biology led him to an interest in human vision and how the brain processes what is seen. He began to work on computational modeling of the visual system and visual psychophysics.

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