Biography •  History and Science

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Manhattan Project to the Santa Fe Institute : The Memoirs of George A. Cowan

George A. Cowan

The telephone lay in pieces on George Cowan's office desk in the basement of Princeton's physics building. It was his first day as a graduate student in the fall of 1941. Down the hall, on the door of the cyclotron control room, a sign warned, "Don't let Dick Feynman in. He takes tools." On that day, the future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman needed a piece from his new office mate's phone, so he borrowed it without even introducing himself.

Cowan's memoir is an engaging eyewitness account of how science works and how scientists, as human beings, work as well. In discussing his career in nuclear physics from the 1940s into the 1980s, Cowan weaves in intriguing anecdotes about a large cast of distinguished scientists--all related in his wry, self-deprecating manner.

Besides his nearly forty-year career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Cowan also helped establish banks in Los Alamos and Santa Fe, served as treasurer of the group that created the Santa Fe Opera, and in the late 1980s participated in founding the Santa Fe Institute and served as its first president. He anchored its interdisciplinary work in his quest to find "common ground between the relatively simple world of natural science and the daily, messy world of human affairs."

Since the early 1990s Cowan has pursued a new interest in psychology and neuroscience to gain a deeper understanding of patterns of human behavior.

This autobiography will appeal to anyone interested in a concise, intellectually engaged account of science and its place in society and public policy over the past seventy years.


George A. Cowan (1920-2012) was a physical chemist who received his doctorate from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949. He worked for thirty-nine years at Los Alamos National Laboratory. During the 1980s he served on the White House council of science advisers. Among his honors are the Enrico Fermi Award, the E. O. Lawrence Award, the Robert H. Goddard Award, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal.


"Cowan's memoir is an intriguing eyewitness account of not only modern scientific developments, but also of the human travails necessary to achieve them."


New Mexico Magazine

6 x 9 in. 184 pages 68 halftones