Cowan, SFI's founding president and a central figure in the history of transdisciplinary science, passed away at his home on April 20, 2012, at the age of 92.
Read Cowan's New York Times obituary (April 25, 2012)
"George Cowan's death is a huge loss to us all," said SFI President Jerry Sabloff. "He was a wonderful person with a visionary understanding of the nature and role of science in the world today. He will be greatly missed by everyone associated with the Santa Fe Institute."
Cowan was a scientist, academician, businessman, and philanthropist. From 1982 to 1984 he was the central figure in founding the Institute. Although he preferred to conduct research, he accepted the invitation to be the Institute’s first president, a position in which he served from 1984 to 1991. He continued to serve on the Institute’s Board of Trustees until his death.
Cowan received a B.S. from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1941. He did graduate studies at Princeton, where he worked under future Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner, whose investigation of uranium confirmed the feasibility of the Fermi pile.
He continued his nuclear research with the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Columbia University, and Los Alamos. Because he was transferred to various locations as a technological troubleshooter for the effort, he was among the very few people with knowledge of the separate components of the bomb, kept apart for security reasons.
He joined the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1946. He earned a Ph.D. from the Mellon College of Science in 1950.
Weeks after his arrival at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1949, he directed the detection of radioactive fallout from samples collected near the Russian border indicating the Soviets were in possession of a nuclear bomb. He later served on the Bethe Panel that convinced government decision makers the radiochemistry detected represented weapons uses rather than peaceful pursuits.
He worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1949 to 1988, serving as a scientist, as a director of chemistry, as associate laboratory director of research, and as a senior laboratory fellow.
He was appointed to the White House Science Council during the Reagan administration. While serving in this capacity and facing problems involving interconnected aspects of science, policy, economics, environment and more, he became an outspoken critic of scientific fragmentation in academia and government and a proponent of the intentional cross-fertilization of many fields – an idea that grew into SFI’s current transdisciplinary focus. He was among the first to advocate the quantitative study of complex adaptive systems.
In 1990 he received the Enrico Fermi Award for “a lifetime of exceptional achievement in the development and use of energy.” He also received the New Mexico Academy of Science Distinguished Scientist Award, the Robert H. Goddard Award, the E.O. Lawrence Award, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal, which is the highest honor the Laboratory bestows on an individual or small group. In 1997 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
As a scientist, Cowan studied nonlinear dynamics, using mathematical equations to predict the behavior of complex systems. He had a particularly strong commitment to one such complex system, the human brain, and the effects of early childhood experience on human brain development. He helped formulate and lead a major study using brain imaging techniques to investigate children’s brain and behavioral development.
In 2001, Carnegie Mellon University awarded Cowan an honorary doctorate of science and technology in recognition of his tireless work on behalf of scientific research, ranging from the fields of nuclear chemistry to the study of the physiology of the human brain.
Cowan was a founding director of Los Alamos National Bank and was its chairman for 30 years. He was a patron of the arts and was an early board member of the renowned Santa Fe Opera.
George Cowan’s wife of 67 years, Helen “Satch” Cowan, passed away in August 2011.
The Santa Fe Institute invites memories of George Cowan’s life and career in the comments section below.
Listen to a Santa Fe Radio Cafe interview with George Cowan (25 minutes, March 23, 2010)
Read George Cowan's obituary in the Washington Post (April 20, 2012)
Read the USA Today article (April 20, 2012)
Read the Santa Fe New Mexican article (April 20, 2012)
Read the Miller-McCune article (April 20, 2012)
Read the Los Alamos Monitor article (subscription required, April 20, 2012)
Read the Albuquerque Journal article (subscription required, April 20, 2012)
Read the NPR.com article (April 20, 2012)
Read the CBS News article (April 20, 2012)
Read the MSNBC article (April 20, 2012)
Read George Cowan's obituary in the Huffington Post (April 20, 2012)
Read the Chicago Sun-Times article (April 20, 2012)
Read The Republic article (April 20, 2012)
See all results for George Cowan's obituary
Read an interview with George Cowan about SFI’s founding in the SFI Bulletin (Fall 2004)
Read about George Cowan's role in the history of the Santa Fe Institute
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|Martin Shubik - April 20, 2012, 1:31 p.m.|
An era passes. I was in the middle of a letter to George, for whom I had deep admiration and counted him as a good friend.
|Sander van der Leeuw - April 20, 2012, 1:41 p.m.|
Although all of us eventually arrive at that moment, this is still quite a
Sander van der Leeuw
|Tim Carlson - April 20, 2012, 2:37 p.m.|
I remember George fondly. A wonderful man with an amazing intellect.
|Ronda Butler-Villa - April 20, 2012, 2:47 p.m.|
When George stepped down as president, I thanked him for hiring me during his tenure and told him that I thought he was the most altruistic person at SFI. He smiled, said thank you, and with a wink said that he hadn't always been that way. I'll miss his humor, his friendship, and his leadership. What SFI meant to him is only surpassed by what he meant to us.
|Ricard Solé - April 20, 2012, 3:42 p.m.|
We'll always remember him. Thanks George, for making some of our dreams come true.
|Michael I Angerman - April 20, 2012, 7:16 p.m.|
I met George in early 1989 during my first days at SFI. Back then we were in the convent and I was a graduate student. George and I had common interests and there are certain things he told me that I still listen to and hear today. In a sea of characters on stage, George represented the humble, common man who was able to have an impact in a quiet way. He was one of the few role models that stands out in my life. To be able to live as full a life as George led is a testament to the fact that through all the tribulations of life the light forces shine through. May his memory be a blessing to us all.
|John Holland - April 20, 2012, 11:28 p.m.|
George was one of a small number of 'heroes' in my life, one of the most prolific and, at the same time, the most modest of them all. It will not be the same to come to SFI and not see him there!
|Marc Feldman - April 21, 2012, 8:19 a.m.|
I am sad to hear about George Cowan's passing. He did so much for SFI and was a most generous scholar. Marc
|Brian Arthur - April 21, 2012, 8:20 a.m.|
I'm sorry indeed to hear this. More than anyone in the early days, George brought the Institute to life and made it work. We will all miss him. -- Brian
|Nina Fedoroff - April 21, 2012, 8:22 a.m.|
I am greatly saddened to hear of his death. He has been a huge champion of the SFI experiment. Nina
|Kazuo Nishimura - April 21, 2012, 8:23 a.m.|
I am very sad to hear of the passing of George.
|Constantino Tsallis - April 21, 2012, 8:24 a.m.|
Very sad to hear that. He was a delicate and ever smiling man.
|Harold Morowitz - April 21, 2012, 8:26 a.m.|
George was truly a great man and a fine human being. He lives on as a role model for those of us associated with SFI. Harold
|John Rundle - April 21, 2012, 8:27 a.m.|
It is a sad day for the SFI Community. He was an extraordinary person with a keen vision.
|Martin Shubik - April 21, 2012, 9:08 a.m.|
George’s forte was good sense and the quiet, calm control of a great low key manager who understood that prima donnas were needed. Vision and tenacity and basic decency accompanied his quiet guidance and considerable direct support.
|Sam Bowles - April 21, 2012, 9:58 a.m.|
Shortly after we met, George told me over lunch about growing up during the great depression in Worcester, Massachusetts. He described the men, now without work, returning daily to the gates of the American Steel and Wire plant hoping to be called back. Many forlornly passed by his dad’s grocery store on their way home. George had the job of making baloney sandwiches for those who were out of money and hungry, “more than I could count” he remembered. That was when George was twelve. Over the same lunch he also told me about a project he was then engaged in to understand why poor kids have difficulty in school and to find solutions. He never stopped making those sandwiches.
|Phil Anderson - April 21, 2012, 12:57 p.m.|
George was very much beloved, yet he had the spine to make him the founder and Our Leader through all those wonderful early years of SFI--and we're STILL HERE!. Please keep me on the list, though i probably can't attend anything--Phil Anderson
|John Miller - April 21, 2012, 5:21 p.m.|
George was a man of extraordinary accomplishment, wisdom, and foresight across all aspects of a well lived, and remarkably balanced, life. Given his humility and style, he was not someone you would get to know quickly, and from my first meeting with him in Mother Superior's office at the convent on Canyon Road in 1988, to my last on an early Sunday morning at his house a month ago, I continued to learn more from, and about, him. George always had the simple vision to understand the complexities of science, politics, business, and life, and in the process of acting on that vision he gave us all an amazing gift.
|Bob Maxfield - April 21, 2012, 6:23 p.m.|
George made a uniquely valuable contribution to science and to humanity
|Steen Rasmussen - April 21, 2012, 6:26 p.m.|
George was the seminal force behind making the Santa Fe Institute a reality through his vision, his ability to assemble the right people and his ability to build infrastructure. George was a life long scientific force at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he also founded Los Alamos National Bank in the community. This bank made it possible for two generations of non-US scientists to establish themselves in Northern New Mexico without a US credit history. By his doings, George both personally and professionally influenced and touched many of us profoundly. We have lost an extraordinary man.
|Kay Taylor Burnett - April 21, 2012, 7:10 p.m.|
George opened a new world when inviting me to visit the newly opened Santa Fe Institute on The Old Santa Fe Trail many years ago. I had met him on a hike in the Jemez Mountains the day before and spent the entire day talking with him. My husband and I were fascinated with the concept of SFI, and George in particular, who graciously invited us back again and again. Now finishing the last term on SFI's Board of Trustees, all because of George, memories are good and mostly of him and his friendship.
|Sanjay Jain - April 22, 2012, 8:42 a.m.|
Sad to learn of George Cowan's passing away. George lives on in the hearts and minds of those of us who came into contact with him, and what he helped create will continue to touch the lives of many others.
|Peter Schuster - April 22, 2012, 8:42 a.m.|
This is very sad news. George was not only a great scientist, a real friend, and the founder and first
|Jeff Bingaman - April 22, 2012, 2:11 p.m.|
George made great contributions to our State and our Nation. He did all that the obituaries recite to his credit and he did it for the best of reasons--to leave the world a better place. I will miss him and join others in expressing my appreciation for all he did. Jeff Bingaman
|Bill and Stephanie Sick - April 22, 2012, 4:27 p.m.|
George will be missed greatly. His wisdom, judgment and understated
|Alan Perelson - April 22, 2012, 4:28 p.m.|
My wife Jan and I too are greatly saddened by George's passing. Not only was he a great SFI president but he was a colleague and great supporter of the scientists and the science being done at SFI.
|Michael Collins - April 22, 2012, 9:01 p.m.|
A true icon (except in his mind) ...an example for us all ...a mild man with a grand vision who made it all possible as much as anyone ...(if we cannot clone the individual, I am sure we will figure out how to transfigured his persona and keep it alive between all of us)
Unique and memorable ...
He will be sorely missed!
|Erica Jen - April 22, 2012, 9:02 p.m.|
George was that rare Father Figure who raised us kids with strict standards and sometimes tough criticism, but also generous pockets, unquestioning moral and intellectual support, a pioneer's eye and taste, and most of all the hope that we would keep trying to be bad and break the rules and do things different from what had been done before.
I remember my conversations with George about whether SFI could start a research program on the molecular basis of human emotion. As was typical, he brought to those conversations his deep understanding and exacting standards of conventional science, together with a fascination with (sometimes wild) new ideas and the information to be gained from (sometimes unproven) new technologies. It was great.
Also want to say that the staff loved him, curmudgeon tho he pretended to be.
|David Weinberger - April 22, 2012, 9:03 p.m.|
We have lost a good friend who was a great inspiration to all. He will be missed so very much.
|Richard L. Wood - April 22, 2012, 9:08 p.m.|
I knew George Cowan only a bit: Waiting in the ski lift line at Pajarito Mountain, before opening on powder-skiing days, he and his beloved "Satch" among our very few competitors for first turns. "Our" there for 30 years included my dad (the late William W. Wood, LANL), brother Igor (retired LANL), brothers and sister Elisabeth (now Yale and SFI). George and Satch always a delight, and -- as the obituaries note -- as dedicated to human learning as to powder skiing, and gifted at both ... rlw
|Michael J. Tarr - April 23, 2012, 7:32 a.m.|
I only knew George since 2009, but became very fond of him. Just last week we attended a luncheon in George's honor and he seemed to enjoy it very much and was in good spirits. The next day we drove up to Los Alamos for lunch with George. I brought my 8 year-old son, Ben, who I had discussed with George in the context of his thoughts about development and education. Ben had just paid a quick visit to the Los Alamos science museum where they have replicas of "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" on display. When we went up to visit George at his house, Ben immediately asked George why there were two and what was different about them. George thought for a second and then went into a pretty detailed discussion of how little boy was a gun type mechanism using uranium which was very hard to obtain (the entire Oakridge TN project being devoted to it), but was quite reliable, while fat man was an implosion type mechanism using plutonium which was easier to obtain, but tended towards spontaneous fission, so difficult to use in creating a bomb. Ben asked several questions during this description and really seems to get it. George then explained the logic of why two were used, in particular highlighting that he had many friends in the armada waiting in the pacific if there was no surrender. Later on George and Ben discussed the mechanisms of fusion, in particular how it runs so hot that it vaporizes any containment vessel, making it, erm, a bit hard to use as a reliable energy source. Ben suggested to George that they use a cooling system to supercool that containment material. George said, yes, this is exactly what they are trying to do. I don't know how often George got to interact with children. but he seemed very much to relish his conversation with Ben. Shocking to think that George passed away only a week later - I haven't had the heart to tell Ben yet.
A picture of Ben and George chatting at George's dining table can be found at:
|Michael J. Tarr - April 23, 2012, 7:35 a.m.|
A second reminiscence from lunch with George last week. Somehow we got to talking about politics. George was lamenting that the government never listens and it is hard to make a difference. I asked George, what about demilitarizing GPS? What doppler radar in airports? What about some of his many other contributions that impact our lives? He gave a wry smile and said, "yes, well except for those..."
|Della Vigil - April 23, 2012, 8:28 a.m.|
I remember interviewing with George in 1988; in his office, previously Mother's Superior bedroom in SFI's first home at the Cristo Rey Convent. I remember celebrating his 70th, 75th, 80th, and recently his 90th birthday with him and Satch, and his SFI family. His Spirit will be in our hearts.
|David Sherrington - April 23, 2012, 8:51 a.m.|
I am also very sorry to hear this news. I did not know George as well as many of you who have already responded but when I did meet him it was a great pleasure and I am also very grateful for and admiring of all that he did for SFI, as well as LANL and LANB. As a non-US citizen who went to work at LANL I can vouch for the excellence of LANB and express my gratitude to George for recognising the difficulties foreigners would meet and setting up the bank to assist them. I have often told persons across the world what amazing insight and generosity George had. I was delighted when the campus was named after him.
|Peter Stadler - April 23, 2012, 9:08 a.m.|
I am very sad to hear that George passed away. He will always be remembered for his
|Jim Rutt - April 23, 2012, 10:22 a.m.|
A sad day for the SFI community and beyond. Successful as both a
George was one of the most extraordinary people I have had the
|Rob de Boer - April 23, 2012, 10:39 a.m.|
This is very sad news. George was a great person and he left a beautiful institute behind.
Rob de Boer
|Wentian Li - April 23, 2012, 10:48 a.m.|
|Ricardo Hausmann - April 23, 2012, 11:43 a.m.|
I would also like to express my deepest condolences to George's facility and to SFI.
I vividly remember the lunch I had with George and Jerry last summer. I hope we will all help make his enormous contributions to SFI truly valuable.
|Geoffrey West - April 23, 2012, 1:01 p.m.|
George has left an extraordinary, and remarkably unique, legacy. His was an exemplary life of accomplishment and lasting impact as a founder and/or leader of relatively unusual, yet distinguished and successful, institutions ranging from the Santa Fe Opera and the Los Alamos National Bank to the Chemistry Division of Los Alamos and, probably the most inspirational, the Santa Fe Institute. He was generous and caring, a humanist and scientist who recognised and supported excellence and who had a passion for new ideas and big questions. He embodied the spirit and vision of SFI and I will sorely miss his stimulating influence and provocative conversations.
|Doug White - April 23, 2012, 1:18 p.m.|
Lilyan and I are also greatly saddened the passing of SFI’s gentle, brilliant founder, long-term thinker and past President George Cowan. The long-term impact of his life will be commensurate with The Clock of the Long Now, which he also supported. I did not know him well but we did have a talk on long-term thinking that I will always cherish. His brilliance and generous intellectual contributions to all of those with the good fortune to know him will be greatly missed.
|Fred Cooper - April 23, 2012, 1:49 p.m.|
George will be sorely missed. His vision was crucial for the Santa Fe Institute and he was always there to offer help and advice on any issue. He was a very
|David Pines - April 23, 2012, 2:16 p.m.|
George was among the best of men—a world-leading scientist, visionary, philanthropist, administrator, and public servant, a delightful companion, and a great good friend to so many of us. He conceived SFI, and his leadership, that extended long past his Presidency, made it possible for it to survive, grow, and thrive.
At a leisurely lunch with George in Los Alamos just a few weeks ago our conversation was wide-ranging, from his planned philanthropic gifts to our shared love of ideas, food, wine, and Paris. George described his latest project—persuading a friend who owns a corporate jet, to fly him to Paris for a few days of outstanding food and wine. It would have made a wonderful coda to a very well spent life.
We shared some memories of starting SFI and thoughts about its future. George rather liked my latest proposal-in-progress for SFI--that it focus increasingly on "the Physics of Emergence”. He thought the task would not be easy but was definitely worth pursuing. Perhaps we can make it happen, as a further tribute to George’s vision of SFI as a major global intellectual force .
George played a key role in the detection of the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon; he was one of the best scientists who worked there in the post WWII years; his ability to identify really good science and scientists made him one of their best senior administrators. Offered the Directorship at Los Alamos, he turned it down; this was fortunate for all concerned, since he soon went on to found SFI. George once told me how SFI was conceived in the very early 1980’s-- looking around the table at a meeting of Reagan's Science Advisors, George worried that future generations of scientists might not have the breadth and depth our country needed to provide the best advice to a President, and decided that he should start a new institute in Santa Fe to help educate and inspire those generations.
More than anyone else in the latter half of the twentieth century, George changed the lives of everyone in northern New Mexico. He conceived SFI and led it most ably during its first seven years; his leadership and his series of major personal gifts in its continuing support made SFI’s Cowan Campus and the Cowan Professorship possible; he was an outstanding scientist and remarkably able leader at Los Alamos; he founded the Los Alamos National Bank, which went on to become the leading bank in our area; as Treasurer of the Santa Fe Opera, he helped save it from early bankruptcy; and, importantly, he was a continuing significant supporter of countless good causes in Northern New Mexico, including the Los Alamos Community Foundation, New Mexico First Born, the Children’s Museum, and the National Dance Institute. But there can be no question that SFI was the crown jewel of his many truly significant achievements and we shall forever be grateful to him.
|Murray Gell-Mann - April 23, 2012, 4:24 p.m.|
George Cowan made gigantic contributions to the success of the Santa Fe Institute. He was really devoted to our common enterprise and effective in pushing it forward. We all celebrate his many achievements and mourn his passing.
|Bob May - April 24, 2012, 7:59 a.m.|
I wish to join everyone else in expressing my sorrow at George
|Rhoda K. Soloway - April 24, 2012, 12:02 p.m.|
George was Best Man at my wedding to Sidney Soloway 68+ years ago in Boston at the Hotel Miles Standish
|Doyne Farmer - April 24, 2012, 2:34 p.m.|
Part 1. George's death signals the passing of an era, both for Los Alamos and for the Santa Fe Institute. It is the end of the Santa Fe Institute's youth. For anyone who has not followed SFI from the inception it is difficult to properly appreciate the role that George played: Without his guidance I'm not sure the institute would even exist. He was one of the rare Renaissance Men, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, winner of the Fermi Prize, and founder of a new field of science. (Who also managed, by the way, to be a great investor and the founder of a truly excellent bank). Most of all he was someone who knew how to make things happen, who made the world a better place by creating institutions that (I hope) will live on for many years and live up to his legacy.
In the early days of the institute George was a strong but calming force. Not that he didn't have strong opinions, but he had a way of stating them that fostered debate. He nurtured an intellectual environment that provided a place for anyone with creativity and vision to flourish. He led strongly but invisibly, always putting the institute first. He was happy to let others claim credit, he just wanted to make it happen. Whenever I reflect on leadership, whenever I try to be a better leader myself, I always think about George, and remind myself of his style of doing things, his integrity, his wisdom.
|Doyne Farmer - April 24, 2012, 2:36 p.m.|
Part 2. When I decided to start my own company, George consider investing, and I had the pleasure of getting to know and appreciate a different side of him. I learned an enormous amount from him. His business intuition was fantastic, his insight into people was superb, and his advice was always good. Not to mention that his lifetime average return on his stock market investments was 18% -- a remarkable track record that, combined with his generosity, has been of huge benefit to the institute.
Then there is the wonderful bank he founded. One does not normally have much affection for one's bank, but I do: It is a pleasure to bank there. I got my first mortgage from LANB, even before I met George, and I have banked with them for 30 years. Where else does one find a bank where you can call anytime and a competent person promptly answers the phone? If you don't have an account there, don't get me going on this, unless you are ready to open one.
Back to the Santa Fe Institute, which I think is George's biggest accomplishment. In the field of complex systems there is no doubt in anyone's mind that SFI was the first, the leader, the one that got it off the ground. Okay, the Santa Fe Institute is a complex system, a collective effort, an emergent phenomenon springing from the not so simple building blocks of many unruly scientists. Nonetheless, I don't think it could ever have happened without George's influence. It is not always so easy to get an emergent phenomenon to emerge. George was the catalyst that made it happen, the reason SFI came into being where and when it did, and he managed to do it without anyone even realizing how critical his influence was.
In his later years I remember George worrying privately to me about the institute. He had many good reasons to worry, but nonetheless, his worries were always followed by generous donations. He worried about SFI like one worries about a favorite but sometimes difficult child, of whom one is nonetheless immensely proud. So to everyone associated with SFI I say: Let's make George even prouder. Let's do the best science we possibly can, let's work together to make the institute even better than it has ever been, let's take it in new directions and to new heights of achievement. Let's make George proud of us.
|Liqian Zhou - April 25, 2012, 12:14 a.m.|
It is a shock for me to hear it.Cowan,for me, was a legent hero who worked much for science of complexity.His death is a geart loss for us.
|Jeffrey Bowman - April 25, 2012, 12:31 a.m.|
What a wonderful, eventful life he lived!
|David Campbell - April 25, 2012, 8:37 a.m.|
Claude and I join the rest of the SFI community in expressing our profound
David and Claude
|Joshua Epstein - April 25, 2012, 9:45 a.m.|
George was the Pater Familias of the Institute, and it was our great good fortune that he played that central role throughout, and did so with honest curiosity,
|Kerry Dugan - April 25, 2012, 9:49 p.m.|
Without having met the man himself, as a peripheral appreciator of SFI, I trust that I, and generations to come will nonetheless meet with the momentums and directions of George's influence and vision. Such is the scope of his dedications, applying himself to efforts on behalf of us all. Thank you, those who carry on with the inspiration he provides you.
|Suzanne Dulle - April 30, 2012, 7:03 a.m.|
Even before my association with George at SFI, I remember him as a thoughtful and exacting Board member at the NCGR in Santa Fe. I recall talking with George on the phone then, and how, when the conversation was completed, he would simply hang up. No extra words of good-bye, he was "all business."
Later, during my years of work at the Institute, I grew to know a different side of George. He had a wonderful sense of humor. Once in talking to me about his dear wife, Satch, he mentioned that he was simply "her 4-H project." It was an honor to be part of his SFI team.
His generosity to educational causes was amazing. In recent years, he was a consistent and generous supporter of the small not-for-profit organization that my husband and I founded to assist in the education of indigenous poor in Bolivia. It made me so very proud to know that George supported our work there. I will miss George very much.
|Gwen - May 14, 2012, 2:14 a.m.|
I am sorry to hear that. We all appreciate his work and he will be missed.
|April Benasich - May 21, 2012, 9:52 a.m.|
Although I only met George when he was already in his 70s, he had the intense curiosity and flexible intelligence of a precocious teenager. His highest level of excitement and engagement at that time was reserved for the ultimate emergent system, the developing brain--and he took all of us in the Santa Fe Institute Consortium, George's very own baby, with him on what turned out to be a difficult but exhilarating journey.