University of California – Berkeley

Top Berkeley Discoveries:

UC Berkeley physicist Luis W. Alvarez designed and engineered the first liquid hydrogen bubble chamber, a detector that allowed scientists to see and photograph the interaction of particles produced by cyclotrons and other particle accelerators. The work produced a flurry of new discoveries and a zoo of new particles in the 1960s and 1970s, and led to a Nobel Prize in physics for Alvarez in 1968.
Biochemist Allan Wilson and anthropologist Vincent Sarich originated the idea of the “molecular clock” — that proteins and genes evolve and change as life evolves, and thus can serve as a measure of the time course of evolutionary events. The now well-accepted theory is used extensively today to investigate evolutionary relationships on all branches of the tree of life, including the relationship between humans and our ape ancestors.
Molecular biologists Peter Duesberg and Peter Vogt discovered the first cancer-causing gene — called an oncogene — in a virus. Dubbed src, it has since been implicated in many human cancers. The oncogene hypothesis is now the most popular theory of the origin of cancer.
Much of the development of the UNIX operating system, widely used by the engineering and scientific community and now making its way into desktop computers, took place at UC Berkeley. Thought the basic concept of UNIX was developed at Bell AT & T Laboratories, modifications and enhancements were started by faculty and students in 1975 and the results distributed to other universities and research laboratories, which in turn contributed their own changes to what rapidly became the operating system of choice in the research community.
UC Berkeley physicist and Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez and his son, Berkeley geologist Walter Alvarez, originated the idea that asteroids or comets have struck the Earth periodically in the past, causing major extinctions of life and spurring subsequent explosions of new organisms. Their initial theory that a rock from space hit the Earth 65 million years ago and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs is still the reigning explanation for the demise of these and may other creatures at the end of the Cretaceous.
Reduced Instruction Set Computers (RISC), the standard in the computer industry today and a development that led to unprecedented improvements in performance and lowered cost, owe much to computer scientists David Patterson and Carlo Sequin. While the first RISC was built by IBM, UC Berkeley coined the term, built the first RISC microprocessors, and published the first papers.
UC Berkeley scientists conducted the first field test of a genetically engineered organism, opening the door today to a flood of genetically altered plants and animals. That initial bacterium was designed to control frost damage by preventing the formation of ice on plants. Steve Lindow had discovered in 1975 that a single gene in a widespread bacterium triggers much of the world’s frost damage to crops, and used recombinant DNA techniques to delete this gene. The outdoor test proved that a well-timed application of the bacterium could cut frost damage without threatening the environment. Companies are now using variants of this bacterium to limit crop damage from unexpected freezes.
UC Berkeley engineers pioneered efforts to develop microtechnology — tiny gears, motors, sensors and other mechanical devices that can fit into the period at the end of this sentence — and built the first micromotor. Today, these microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) have become commonplace, for example, as accelerometers in automobile air bags. One of the hottest applications today of MEMS technology originated at UC Berkeley: tiny sensors cheap enough to be scattered throughout a building to return data on temperature and light to help reduce energy usage, or to provide reconnaissance data over an entire battlefield.
UC Berkeley astronomers Alex Filippenko and Adam Reiss were key members of an international team that discovered that the universe is not only expanding, but the expansion is accelerating. The finding, based on studies of distant supernovas, threw a wrench into standard cosmological theories, which predicted a slowing expansion, and led to the current notion that a mysterious “dark energy” makes up more than 2/3 of the universe.
Geneticist Gerald Rubin spearheaded the effort to sequence the complete genome of the fruit fly, an important experimental animal in research labs around the world. The feat was an important milestone on the road to sequencing the entire human genome, and proved the effectiveness of shotgun sequencing techniques that led to the sequencing of the human genome a year later.
In a triumph for the new field of nanotechnology, UC Berkeley physicist Alex Zettl and his colleagues built the first nano-scale motor — a gold rotor on a nanotube shaft that could ride on the back of a virus. The smallest synthetic motor ever made, it proves that nanotubes and other nanostructures several hundred times smaller than the diameter of a human hair can be manipulated and assembled into true devices.
Paleoanthropologist Tim White and an international team of anthropologists and geologists working in Ethiopia reported finding fossils of the oldest anatomically modern human, Homo sapiens. The three skulls, including one of a child, fill a gap between pre-humans and modern humans, and show that even then — 160,000 years ago — early humans were using stone tools to butcher animals and had mortuary practices similar to some groups living today that preserve and worship the bones of their ancestors.