In Memoriam: George Cowan ’41, Manhattan Project Chemist, Nuclear Detective, Santa Fe Institute Founder

April 27, 2012

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George Cowan '41, a pioneer in nuclear chemistry who helped confirm the Soviet Union's entry into the nuclear age; a key participant in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb during World War II; and the founder of a center for interdisciplinary research that brought together some of the world's most influential scientific thinkers, died April 20, 2012, at his home in Los Alamos, N.M. He was 92.

Said WPI President Dennis Berkey, who visited Cowan at the Santa Fe Institute, "George Cowan was a highly distinguished scientist, a true American patriot who put his enormous talent productively in service to the nation in the most profound ways, and a classy gentleman, easy to speak with and always interested in his alma mater." 

A Worcester native, Cowan enrolled at WPI and majored in chemistry, though his interest veered more to economics and business. It was at the Institute, in the classroom of physics professor Morton Masius, that Cowan first began thinking about nuclear fission—the fracturing of uranium atoms that can release extraordinary quantities of energy in accordance with Einstein's elegant equation, E=MC2.

With a referral from Masius, Cowan was admitted to the graduate program at Princeton University where he served as a research assistant to future Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner, who was running experiments in the Palmer Laboratory's cyclotron—an atom smasher. The experiments in which Cowan participated were crucial to helping to discover whether a sustained chain reaction could be established in uranium, and that answer was the key to determining whether nuclear fission could be harnessed to produce energy or become the basis of a fearsome weapon.

In those days, just prior to the United States' entry into World War II, efforts were already gearing up for a massive research and development project aimed at building that weapon. The effort, code named the Manhattan Project, would proceed furiously, and covertly, for six years, shadowed by the constant fear that Germany was not only developing its own atomic bomb, but that it was winning the race.

With his rapidly growing expertise in nuclear chemistry, Cowan was welcomed into the top-secret project and spent the next several years shuttling about the country helping to supervise key components of the Manhattan Project, including the production of pure uranium metal for the "pile" under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, where Enrico Fermi engineered the first successful nuclear reactor, and the development of huge plutonium production and processing facilities in Hanford, Wash., and Oak Ridge, Tenn. "It was unusual for a scientist to go to so many sites," the New York Times noted in its obituary for Cowan. "Dr. Cowan said that his expertise made him a valuable troubleshooter…."

After the war, Cowan conducted research at Columbia University, where he gained expertise in measuring neutrons made in nuclear explosions. He soon moved on to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which was spearheading efforts to translate the lessons of the Manhattan Project into a mature nuclear weapons program.

At Los Alamos, Cowan became a renowned nuclear detective. He developed innovative techniques for sussing out information on the efficiency of nuclear weapons using the chemical products that their explosions left behind. He was present for two test blasts at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, known as Operation Crossroads, and witnessed one detonation from a B-17 bomber. After the Pacific tests, he took time out to earn a PhD in physical chemistry at Carnegie Institute of Technology. "I wasn't motivated to be a great scientist," Cowan told the WPI Journal in 1991. "I just wanted to experience every aspect of science that I could sample."

In 1949, when samples arrived at Los Alamos from what was thought to a nuclear test by the Soviet Union, Cowan was given the job of proving to federal officials, who believed the Soviets were not capable of building an A-bomb, that another nation had joined the nuclear club. "We had to prove it 20 different ways before we could win that argument," he told the Journal.

One of his most challenging assignments was developing methodologies for assessing the yield of hydrogen bombs, since the fusion of deuterium atoms yields just helium and neutrons. Cowan solved this puzzle by using exotic materials to measure the energetic neutrons  produced in an H-bomb blast and studying the residue from the fission bombs that create the heat and pressure needed to fuse hydrogen. For this work, Cowan received the E.O. Lawrence Award from President Lyndon Johnson.

Cowan spent nearly 40 years at Los Alamos as a scientist and administrator, eventually serving as director of chemistry and associate lab director of research, director of research, senior fellow, and senior fellow emeritus. During that time be continued to contribute the advancement of nuclear chemistry and also made a striking discovery in geology. He studied ore from a uranium deposit in Africa and found that it had gone critical two billion years ago, creating a natural nuclear reactor.

Having observed at Los Alamos the insights that can come to light when scientist from different disciplines work in truly interdisciplinary teams, he joined with a few other senior fellows in 1984 to found the Santa Fe Institute in the convent of a former parochial school. Cowan served as founding president of the private, non-profit research institution, which fosters interdisciplinary research among scientists from the physical, biological, computational, and social sciences. The institute soon attracted some of the luminaries of science, including Murray Gell-Mann, Robert A. Millikan, and David Pines.

The institute's mission is to develop a better understanding of complex systems, which Cowan said encompasses everything from the evolution of prehistoric societies to the functioning of the global economic system. Cowan, himself, spent time over the past few decades researching topics as diverse as the stock market and early childhood development. The Santa Fe Institute has described Cowan as "a central figure in the history of transdisciplinary science."

George Cowan's life's work earned him many honors. In addition to the Lawrence Award, he received the Enrico Fermi Award, the highest scientific honor bestowed by the U.S. Department of Energy. He served on the White House Science Council from 1982 to 1985 and was a White House consultant in 1986, during the Reagan Administration. He also received the Los Alamos Living Treasures Award, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal, a Department of Energy Presidential Citation, and the New Mexico Academy of Science Distinguished Scientist Award. WPI honored him with the Robert H. Goddard Alumni Award for Professional Achievement and, in 2002, with an honorary doctorate in science.

He was a fellow or member of Sigma Xi, the Society of Academics, the American Physics Society, the American Physical Society, the Science Advisory Committee, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, the Federation of Atomic Scientists, the American Nuclear Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the New Mexico Academic of Science, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies. He served on the boards of the National Foundation for Functional Brain Imaging, the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, the National Center for Genome Resources, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. Air Force Technical Applications Center, among others.

Known in Santa Fe as a civic leader, Cowan gave generously of his time and expertise to local civic and arts organizations. He was a founding member of the Santa Fe Opera Foundation and served as a director of the Opera Association of New Mexico and the Los Alamos Concert Association. He also served as director of the Los Alamos Building and Loan, Los Alamos Medical Center, Los Alamos Hospital, and Los Alamos National Bank.

Cowan was predeceased by his wife, Helen “Satch” Dunham Cowan, who was also a chemist on the Manhattan Project. They had no children.

His death was covered by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, among many other news outlets.