UC Berkeley physicist and nobel laureate Don Glaser dies at 86

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UC Berkeley physicist and Nobel laureate Donald Glaser died at his home in Berkeley early Thursday morning. He was 86.

Glaser was an accomplished researcher of physics and neurobiology and was best known for winning the 1960 Nobel Prize in physics. He received the award when he was just 34 for his invention of the bubble chamber.

The bubble chamber made it possible for scientists to observe high-energy beams in liquid and subsequently discover new particles. The chamber worked by shooting a particle through a liquid heated above its boiling point and allowed scientists to track the particle by photographing the trail of bubbles left in its wake.

“It is well known that he made an enormous contribution with his early work in experimental particle physics,” said assistant professor Michael DeWeese of the UC Berkeley department of physics. “Don was ahead of his time in many ways. He was still active in computational neuroscience right up until a couple years before his passing.”

The department of physics has planned a memorial in Glaser’s honor set to take place later this spring.

Glaser co-founded one of the first biotechnology companies, Cetus Corp., in 1971 to discover methods that would aid agriculture and medicine. Cetus found a way to amplify DNA by starting a polymerase chain reaction.

“He was a really important member and leader of the biophysics community here at Berkeley,” said professor Carlos Bustamante of the campus department of physics, who said he knew Glaser personally. “We have lost someone who was a really active scientist and helped shape the biophysics community here at Berkeley.”

Michael Botchan, a professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology at UC Berkeley, echoed Bustamante, adding that Glaser was a “broad and powerful scholar who was a pioneer in the biophysics industry.”

After winning the Nobel Prize, Glaser shifted his focus to neurobiology and conducted psychophysical experiments to further understand the human brain, including one to better understand how humans perceive motion.

He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1959 and began working in the campus Virus Lab, where he conducted experiments with bacteria and viruses. He invented equipment that aided scientists in growing these bacterial cells and studied how they reproduced and repaired themselves.

“Even though he did not make as big of a contribution to biology as he did to physics, he was an amazing scientist, and I salute him, and I am sad to hear of his passing,” said campus professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology Jeremy Thorner.

Contact Seif Abdelghaffar at [email protected].