Santa Fe Institute

SFI co-founder Stirling Colgate passes away

Dec. 2, 2013 3:37 p.m.

Stirling Colgate, a co-founder and past board member of the Santa Fe Institute, passed away December 1, 2013, at his home in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He was 88.

Colgate was a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a past president and professor emeritus of physics at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. He was America's premier diagnostician of thermonuclear weapons during the early years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Although much of his involvement with physics had been highly classified, he has made many contributions in the open literature including physics education and astrophysics.

Colgate was among a group of senior scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the early 1980s whose vision for an independent, transdisciplinary scientific center grew into the Santa Fe Institute.

Read his obituary

More about Stirling Colgate

Members of SFI’s community who knew Colgate are encouraged to share a memory of him below.

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Fred Cooper - Dec. 2, 2013, 3:53 p.m.

Stirling was famous for thinking "out of the box". At one party he discussed with me a great idea for lowering the risk of Hurricanes. He thought one should get a bunch of Coast Guard ships out into the water and churn up the water so that the cooler water below the surface would come to the surface, preventing the hurricane from gaining energy from the warm water. His mind was always "churning" with ideas about everything including how to prevent near sightedness!

Richard Sonnenfeld - Dec. 3, 2013, 2:42 p.m.

I was honored to know Stirling since the 1980s, and joined the faculty at New Mexico Tech in part because of the wonderful community of creative science on a shoestring that he fostered there. Up until the very last weeks of
his life, Stirling continued to run a significant astrophysics experiment at NM Tech ("the liquid sodium alpha-omega dynamo") dedicated to showing that tiny seed magnetic fields in galaxies could "wind-up" to produce stronger fields.
I was peripherally involved with this experiment and helped present early results at a plasma physics conference. It was then that I saw that Stirling was "competing" with groups from U. of Wisconsin and Princeton. I have heard
from those closer to the experiment that results in the last year of Stirling's life trump those coming out of the big-name labs because Stirling had the vision to choose a cylindrical rather than a spherical geometry for the experiment.

Luis Bettencourt - Dec. 4, 2013, 12:16 p.m.

I was terribly saddened by the news of Stirling’s passing.

Stirling was the single most important person in my career showing me, simply by asking brilliantly provocative questions, how exciting and imaginative research can be.

It was because of one of these questions, a challenge he posed me during lunch in LANL’s cafeteria, that I became interested in social systems and cities in particular.

He had a fierce and deep intellect to match his general attitude towards life and science.

May we always remember him so, and may we carry on our own life and research in ways that do justice to the joy, courage and intelligence he gifted us.

David Pines - Dec. 4, 2013, 10:17 p.m.

Stirling [Stir] Colgate was a uniquely talented theoretical physicist/astrophysicist with a genius for invention that led to his playing a major role in the testing of the hydrogen bomb and a seminal proposal for the detection of nuclear weapon explosions. From an early age he was fascinated by explosions, a fascination that led to his joining Livermore to work on the hydrogen bomb right after receiving his Cornell PhD with Bob Wilson in1951, and to his life-long interest in supernovae, the extraordinarily powerful cosmic explosion that results from the collapse of the core of a massive star that has exhausted its thermonuclear sources of energy. His fundamental contributions to our understanding of supernovae were recognized by his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1976 and the Wetherill Prize of the Franklin Institute in 1994.

Stir left Livermore in 1965 to become President of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. Thanks to his excellent taste in science and people he was able to transform that institution’s teaching and research portfolio during his 10 year tenure there.

Stir came very close to winning a Nobel Prize. He was the first to explore the possibility of an automated search for supernovae, but at the time he started his work at New MexTech on what he named DigAs, the techniques for doing so were not available, nor did they become available in the 70’s and early 80’s. It fell to Saul Perlmutter to carry through Stir’s program of an automated supernova search, work that led to his discovery that the universe is expanding and a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

When in early 1970 it occurred to some of us that the Aspen Center for Physics could profit by hosting annual workshops in theoretical astrophysics, Stir played a leading role in making that happen, persuading the right people to join us and choosing the right topics for exploration there.

Not least, Stir was a Founder of the Santa Fe Institute. As a charter member of what might be called the Cowan Collaborative, the group of scientists whom George Cowan convened in 1983 to plan a new kind of educational institution in Santa Fe, he played an important part in the discussions that led to SFI. He was a Founding Member of the Board of Trustees of the Rio Grande Institute that became SFI in early 1985.

All of who knew Stir will remember his passion about ever so many things, from flying to finding cures for Hepatits C and for near sightedness, to trying to understand the origin of life {we had many arguments about that, as Stir thought information theory would provide the clue and I thought it was a matter of self-organization under very far from equilibrium conditions], and the role played by dynamos and magnetic field in the cosmos.

Stir was a great good friend and a great colleague and his presence among us will be sorely missed.

Norman Johnson - Dec. 5, 2013, 7:31 a.m.

I remember the first time I heard Stir’s name in T-Division, outside of copious rumors: Hans had a new project for me, but “it will require hazardous duty, because of the head of the project, Stirling Colgate.” So began a fantastic adventure working with Stir, certainly the most stimulating time of my career. There wasn’t a week that went by that didn’t present a major theoretical or experimental challenge, and Stir was the unstoppable idea generator and problem solver that made the project engender Laboratory and National recognition. And, he duplicated this magic in diverse areas, such as crucial contributions to early research on HIV spread, mixing in supernovas, and tornado dynamics, with elegant and simple solutions that were validated years later by simulations.

While most of us remember his great scientific contributions, he equally touched and improved many peoples lives by challenging bad ideas and unworthy solutions, some as simple as rerouting a ill-considered walking path (for which I thanked him daily). Likely, his aggressive problem solving left many a manager and administrator in his “hazardous” wake.

There will be no end to the great stories of his life that will fill the next 88 years that follow his passing.

Geoffrey West - Dec. 5, 2013, 4:20 p.m.

What a wonderfully inspirational scientist! Stirling's intellect and passion for science coupled with an infectious enthusiasm for asking profound and unexpected questions about almost anything made him an extraordinary colleague whom I shall sorely miss. The broad boundary-less nature of SFI science is a reflection of his spirit and a tribute to his role as one of our original "founding fathers". We were colleagues in the Theoretical Division for over 25 years at Los Alamos and I cherish great memories of spirited discussions, arguments, and explorations covering an extraordinary spectrum of subjects from his passion for supernovae and hurricanes to questions of population growth and sustainability to speculations of the nature of the psyche and the paranormal and their relationship to string theory and the challenges of sustaining loving relationships! A man never to shrink from speculative and probing thought! My only regret is that I was unable to convince him to spend more time at SFI despite his many good intentions to do so. He would have added a very special ingredient to an already sumptuous menu.

Ken LaBry - Dec. 10, 2013, 1:40 p.m.

I am saddened to hear of the passing of a mentor and friend. I was a student at NMIMT in the early 70's and worked in the lab next to Stirling's office and also on some of Stirling's projects such as the Digitized Astronomy Project and the Joint Observatory for Comet Research. Stirling was always juggling multiple ideas in various disciplines simultaneously. Being a protege of Stirling's was definitely a challenge and usually somewhat dangerous as well. I recall night runs in blizzard conditions up to the Observatory and the experimental challenges of "fluid - fluid explosive self mixing". Stirling inspired adventure in science and I am more and better for having known him

Warner Colgate Sutton - Dec. 12, 2013, 1:17 p.m.

Stirling was my Uncle. He was a great man in a small town. He would visit us in Hawaii and we visited them this past September. While giving us a tour in the Los Alamos Museum he looked at all the older work done at the labs for weapons and told me that it made him remember how much he had to keep super secret. Even after 60+ years. Stirling had gone to high school in Los Alamos but since the war broke out this area was to be used for very secret development of the bomb. They graduated them early and he went on to Cornell. Guess he liked the cold weather.
We will miss him as now my mother has no other direct siblings. A half sister lives in the Pacific NW. His father lived in New Jersey and was separated by divorce of this mother from him. Anne, my mother still lives in Hawaii as we do and has since 1941. She married my Father soon after Pearl Harbor as he was on duty during the attack.
Stirling also had taught many people who live in Honolulu about physics and the stars, as I had taken some astronomy classes at University of Hawaii and many professors had known him.
On his wall he had many framed inventions by him as his patents were secured. I took a photo since it was large feat and held such accomplishments- I did not know how many he had. We hope for the family to be comforted by the hundreds going to his memorial Dec. 15 in his town. We will have a ceremony on the beach in Hawaii with family throwing lei into the sea for his memory.
Stirling was more than a scientist who developed the H-bomb he was a compassionate person with care for others.
Aloha Uncle.

Bruce Blevins - Dec. 23, 2013, 4:34 p.m.

Stir was a friend, mentor, and teacher. He and the other professors at New Mexico Tech started me on my career and were inspirations to all of the students. Stir was a unique individual and as others have indicated a great guy, always full of ideas, challenges, and compassion.

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