Donald Glaser, Nobel laureate who expanded atomic world

WASHINGTON — Donald Glaser, a physicist who invented the bubble chamber, a much-used device for making visible the invisible world of subatomic particles, died Thursday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. The Nobel laureate was 86.

He was an emeritus member of the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, where his fertile scientific imagination led him from nuclear physics to molecular biology, and the study of the functioning of the brain.

As scientists peered into the subatomic world, with its dazzling array of particles smaller than atoms and their nuclei, Dr. Glaser’s chamber, for which he was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize, was one of their primary and most powerful tools.


In the past 60 years, vast arrays of new particles have been discovered, and many of them, said Herbert Steiner, a particle physicist, were found with the bubble chamber. These discoveries, he said, contributed to the modern understanding of matter at its most fundamental levels.

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Steiner, also an emeritus professor at Berkeley, said in an e-mail that discoveries made with the chamber ‘‘led to the quark model in which the observed particles are made up of smaller constituents [the quarks] that are held together by a sort of glue [the gluons].’’

He said he suspected that most of the hundreds of particles listed in a scientific review of the field ‘‘were discovered and studied with a bubble chamber.’’

In the chamber, the paths of invisible subatomic particles, produced by accelerators and in high-energy collisions, are made visible as trails of bubbles.

The tracks have been likened to the white vapor trails that often streak the skies at high altitudes, after the passage of a jet aircraft. From bubble chamber trails, physicists can deduce the properties and behavior of the particles. Subatomic debris from collisions can be tracked, and the creation of particles indicated.


The invention demanded deep knowledge of scientific fields removed from nuclear physics. In addition to patience and creativity, it required an understanding of chemistry, thermodynamics, liquids, and the intricacies of bubble formation.

Donald Arthur Glaser was born in Cleveland on Sept. 21, 1926, and received a bachelor of science degree in physics and mathematics in 1946 from what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

After earning his doctorate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1949, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where much of his bubble work was done. He moved to Berkeley in 1959. He shifted his primary scientific emphasis to molecular biology in 1962.

According to a statement from Berkeley, Dr. Glaser and two friends in 1971 founded Cetus, one of the first companies to apply discoveries in biotechnology to medicine and agriculture.

His marriage to Ruth Thompson Glaser ended in divorce. He leaves his wife, Lynn, whom he married in 1975; two children from his first marriage, Louise of Sacramento, and William of Berkeley; and four granddaughters.


A popular account held that Dr. Glaser derived scientific inspiration from viewing the bubbles in beer. Not quite, he once told a lecture audience.

In fact, he said, fellow scientists at a hangout at the University of Michigan pointed to the profusion of bubbles streaming in their beer and teased Dr. Glaser about what was so challenging about so trivial a phenomenon.

‘‘I took a lot of ribbing,’’ he said.