George A. Cowan
George A. Cowan. Scientist, businessman, and philanthropist who conducted early research for the Manhattan Project and went on to found Los Alamos National Bank and the Santa Fe Institute.
For 39 years George A. Cowan worked at the Laboratory, 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. In 1983, he created the Santa Fe Institute, where his chief interest has been the physiology of the human brain.
Cowan's career began shortly after obtaining a BS from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1941. The young man 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.
On December 2, 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 December 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:
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." And 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 US 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:
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: