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)
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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