George Cowan: A Man of Science and Society

George Cowan: A Man of Science and Society

George Cowan

George Cowan, a Manhattan Project veteran, died at 92 in Los Alamos on April 20, 2012.  As the obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post attest, Cowan was a truly remarkable person who throughout his long career sought ways for science to help society. He was on the cutting-edge of nuclear science but was also entrepreneurial, founding the Los Alamos National Bank and the Santa Fe Institute. Moreover, he was very thoughtful, probing the future of today’s world.  Throughout his life, Cowan was curious about the way the world worked and sought to address the full gamut of its problems, recognizing the valuable role of science in society.

Born in 1920 in Worcester, Massachusetts, his parents were Jewish immigrants from Trochenbrod, a village in the Ukraine that was eradicated by the Germans in 1942 and  memorialized by Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated (2002). Cowan earned his BS in chemistry from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1941 and then worked with Eugene Wigner at Princeton University exploring whether a fission chain reaction could be achieved with natural uranium.

Once the Manhattan Project got underway in 1942, Cowan went to work at the “Met Lab” (Metallurgical Laboratory) with Herbert Anderson, Enrico Fermi’s right-hand man. Among other things, he machined graphite blocks for the “pile” that became the first controlled nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-I. Built in a squash court under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, the pile went critical on December 2, 1942.  Unfortunately, Cowan missed the event as he was in New York City visiting the Radium Chemical Company in search of a neutron source.

At the Met Lab, Cowan began working at New Chemistry (“New Chem”) trying to separate plutonium from uranium solutions. Glenn Seaborg, who had discovered plutonium-239, was just down the hall. Together they worked on a chemical separation process to extract the plutonium produced in the reactors at Hanford.

In 1943, he met Helen Siegel Dunham (who went by “Satch”) when he kissed her under a branch of mistletoe at the laboratory’s Christmas party. She first was his lab partner at the Met Lab and in September 1946 became his lifelong partner. The Cowans had been married for 65 years when she died last year.

In 1945, Cowan joined John Dunning’s nuclear physics program team at Columbia University. Dunning directed the effort to separate uranium-235 by gaseous diffusion. After receiving a PhD in physical chemistry at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, PA in 1949, Cowan and his wife moved to Los Alamos.

Cowan worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for nearly 40 years, starting off as a scientist and eventually serving as a director of chemistry and as associate lab director of research. He was awarded the Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal in 2002, the highest honor from LANL, in recognition of his distinguished career in science.

He enjoyed speaking to teachers at the AHF-sponsored New Mexico Teacher’s workshops over the last three years, regaling the teachers with stories of his time in the Manhattan Project. In 2006, he gave a thoughtful speech on whether there could be a Manhattan Project in the 21st Century at AHF’s symposium on the Manhattan Projects. His remarks are included in The Manhattan Project (AHF’s anthology, which can be purchased here). 

In 1984, he founded the Santa Fe Institute, where interdisciplinary teams investigated the science of complexity. It was an intellectually invigorating place. Cowan’s personal interest was the relationship between developmental psychology and neuroscience, studying how environmental conditions affect babies’ cognitive, social, and emotional skills.

To learn more about his life and work, we recommend his delightful biography, Manhattan Project to the Santa Fe Institute. Looking back over his life, Cowan recognized the importance of having parents and teachers who encouraged his curiosity, critical thinking, and love of literature. Such a childhood, he concluded, made a lifelong difference. In fact, he observed, curious people live longer. He certainly was a very Curious George who had most productive life.