Skip directly to content

Renowned Scientist George Cowan Has Died

on April 20, 2012 - 5:33pm

By Carol A. Clark

Internationally renowned scientist George A. Cowan has died. 

Cowan was a scientist, philanthropist and businessman who conducted early research for the Manhattan Project and went on to found Los Alamos National Bank and the Santa Fe Institute.

Los Alamos National Laboratory issued the following statement today on the death of the Laboratory's Senior Fellow.

“Dr. Cowan was a central figure at the Laboratory for 39 years. As a Senior Fellow and Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal Winner, he set an example of service to the nation that we strive to follow today. George was a giant at the Laboratory, in the community, and in Northern New Mexico. Our condolences go out to his loved ones and to the Santa Fe Institute.”

LANL said that Cowan's work at the Laboratory included serving as director of chemistry, associate director of research and senior laboratory fellow.

Although known as one of the world's experts on nuclear weapons diagnostics, Cowan in later years turned his attention to other endeavors.

For example, he helped found Los Alamos National Bank, serving as its chair for 30 years.

Chief Executive Officer and Board Chairman Bill Enloe of Los Alamos National Bank was one of Cowan's close personal friends.

“George Cowan was an incredible person. The combination of his vision, intelligence, judgment and generosity had an enormous impact on New Mexico. He had the unique ability to convert his visions into reality,” Enloe said in a statement this afternoon. “His scientific accomplishments have received recognition on an international scale. His commitment to pushing science to continually grow and challenge the status quo led to the establishment of the Santa Fe Institute. George’s vision for a better community and commitment to Los Alamos led to the formation of Los Alamos National Bank. His commitment to children, learning and the environment led to the establishment of The Delle Foundation. He looked to the future his entire life and was not an observer but an active participant in creating it. I had the good fortune of being associated with him for much of my life and his personal ideals will always serve as a foundation for what I do. His passing will leave a vacuum in many people’s lives.”

Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici expressed his sentiments in a statement issued today from Washington, D.C. regarding the death of Dr. Cowan:

“We can truly say that our country lost a true hero today," Domenici said. "He was a rare type of leader. Not only was he a great scientist, but he was also a brilliant entrepreneur and businessman. He was always open to a new idea, and everyone knows that Los Alamos National Bank, a great bank, became such principally because of this man’s dedication and involvement."

In 1983, Cowan created the Santa Fe Institute, where his chief interest was the physiology of the human brain.

"The Santa Fe Institute is a living reality because of his leadership," Domenici said. "He cannot be replaced, but let’s hope he left footprints for us to follow.”

LANL said that Dr. Cowan's career began shortly after obtaining a Bachelor of Science Degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1941. He then attended Princeton, where he worked with future Nobel Prize Laureate Eugene Wigner to design the first uranium chain reactor.

In 1942, Wigner, Cowan and several others transferred to the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, where a key "incident" would take place later that year.

The Incident

On Dec., 1942, a handful of men and one woman gathered in a squash court under the abandoned West Stands of Stagg Field, which was located at the University of Chicago. Inside cramped quarters stood the Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1), which had been designed and constructed by, among others, Enrico Fermi, Arthur Holly Compton, Eugene Wigner, and Cowan.

On the afternoon of Dec. 2, the CP-1 generated the first controlled nuclear reaction. The ability to release controlled energy from the nucleus of an atom paved the way for Oak Ridge and Hanford to develop a method to obtain nuclear fuel for the world's first atomic weapons.

When Laboratory Director Pete Nanos presented the 2002 Los Alamos Medal to Cowan, he reflected upon the momentous work done on the Manhattan Project:

"It takes an overwhelming threat to demonstrate what people can achieve in the face of one or two enemy powers."

George Cowan: Weapons Scientist

After World War II, Cowan came at Los Alamos, where he conducted chemical analyses designed to measure nuclear energy fields. In 1946, Cowan participated in Operation Crossroads, which took place in the South Pacific. He then left Los Alamos for the Carnegie Institute of Technology, from which he obtained a PhD in 1950.

Upon his return to Los Alamos, Cowan worked on identifying products from the first Russian atomic-bomb test. By 1956 he was considered one of the world’s experts on nuclear weapons diagnostics. He was named associate head of the Laboratory's Test Division and later served as associate director for research and senior laboratory fellow. In 1988, Cowan became a senior fellow emeritus.

In addition to awards such as the New Mexico Academy of Science Distinguished Scientist Award, the Robert H. Goddard Award, and the E.O. Lawrence Award, Cowan received the Enrico Fermi Prize for “a lifetime of exceptional achievement in the development and use of energy.”

In 2002, he was given the Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal, the highest honor the Laboratory can bestow on an individual or small group. The medal honored Cowan’s pioneering work in radiochemical techniques and his measurements of fundamental physical properties of neutrons from nuclear explosions.

George Cowan: Businessman and Philanthropist

Cowan’s interests were not just in science. In addition to serving on advisory groups for the US Air Force Technical Applications Center, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Regents of New Mexico Institute of Technology, he served on boards for the Los Alamos Hospital, the Santa Fe Opera, the Santa Fe Opera Foundation, and the National Center for Genome Resources. Cowan also served as chair of the Los Alamos Concert Association and the Los Alamos Public Utilities Board.

As a businessman, Cowan helped found Los Alamos National Bank, serving as chairman for 30 years. He was also chairman of the Trinity Capital Corporation and a member of the board of Universal Properties, Inc.

In 1983, Cowan assembled a group of senior scientists interested in researching complex, adaptive systems. One year later, this assembly became the Santa Fe Institute, with Cowan as its president, a position he held until his retirement in 1991.

A think tank, the Santa Fe Institute fosters interdisciplinary research. Thus, physicists and mathematicians work hand in hand with economists and computer scientists from all over the world. The underlying theory behind many projects is that natural systems operate in chaotic environments, but that chaos is in fact self-organized. Based upon this theory, scientists hope to explain the mysteries of how life began and predict global economic trends.

As a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute, Cowan used neuroscience to study the relationship between physiological changes in children's brains and their behavioral development.

In the 2002 issue of the Santa Fe Institute Bulletin, Cowan defined the meaning of “chaos,” a word that he says has been “trashed” in the popular culture:

“It’s a term a lot of people use to mean random. But random is something else. In nonlinear dynamical terms, chaos means there are so many degrees of freedom that you can't readily perceive the order. If it’s a simple system, it only has two or three degrees of freedom. If it has many degrees of freedom, it usually looks disordered. But chaos is really ordered.”

In the book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, M. Mitchell Waldrop credits Cowan with envisioning the science of complexity:

“Cowan was the one who had conceived the institute in the first place. He was the one who had envisioned a science of complexity before anyone had even known what to call it. He was the one who had done more than anyone else to make the Santa Fe Institute happen, to make it the most intellectually exciting place that any of them had ever been in.”

Memorial Services for Dr. Cowan are pending.