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Historical society embraces Reines' Nobel legacy

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Los Alamos Historical Society this weekend celebrated the largest financial gift in its history. A trust established by Fred Reines and his wife Sylvia, left $100,000 to the society along with the medal he was awarded for a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1995. Fred Reines died in August 1998 and Sylvia died in October 2006.

Poignant memories of the couple were shared in reminiscences by their family, friends, students, colleagues, community leaders and members of the society, among other participants at Fuller Lodge on Sunday.

Robert Reines of Ojo Sarco, N.M., and Alisa (Lisa) Reines Cowden of Trumansburg, N.Y, both born in Los Alamos, were the guests of honor at the ceremonies. Grandson David Reines, who is studying geography at the University of New Mexico, also attended.

Robert Reines focused on his father in his brief remarks, and Lisa focused on her mother. Together, they emphasized the human qualities of their parents.

As a trustee of the estate, Lisa Reines Cowden called particular attention to her mother's contribution to the success and cohesion of the family, her care and attention to detail, her charitable activities and educational mission.

"She was always teaching us about the world," Lisa said.

Lisa described her own return to Los Alamos as "a relief," because she was fulfilling her job administering her parents' will, but the visit also evoked a complex set of personal memories, in none of which had she imagined herself standing in the Fuller Lodge performing these responsibilities.

When she was "a little kid from 35th Street who lived entirely in the present and played in the gray water of the golf course," the world was divided between "us, the kids, and them, the parents."

Robert chose two passages from one of his father's early journals, one written at age 16 and one at age 20.

The 16-year old, on Dec. 24, 1934, had read a story in the newspaper about a Christmas-Eve truce along the French-German front in 1914, when the soldier put down their weapons and celebrated together. It was a story that William Faulkner would make the basis of his novel, "A Fable," in 1954.

"It's a shame that people haven't that fraternal feeling all the time," the young Fred Reines wrote, blaming the munitions industry for the failure.

Another passage that Robert Reines read, written by his father at the age of 20, captured a strikingly prophetic statement that Robert said he found "personally staggering."

"I'd like to discover one little thing and build my career around it," Fred Reines wrote. Then he said he also "wished to be presented with $1 million."

The passage concluded, "However, the wish for scientific discovery is stronger."

Nearly 20 years later, of course, Reines discovered the neutrino, one of the smallest things in the universe, and after a 40-year wait, shared one of the biggest scientific prizes in the world.

Heddy Dunn, executive director of the society said, "Today's great celebration follows a year's anticipation, after receiving a phone call from Lisa Reines Cowden."

Dunn said Lisa asked if the historical society accepted bequests and if they received one what would they do with it.

"This kind of phone call doesn't happen every day," she said.

For the historical society the gift is a way to support a staff curator, to preserve and repair additions to the collections and perhaps even to buy or build a new facility to house the society's artifacts.

"Moreover," added Laurence Campbell, the society president in an announcement, "this gift is an opportunity to commemorate a great scientist of Los Alamos and the achievements that are associated with his tenure here."

Fred and Sylvia Reines arrived in Los Alamos in 1944, and were very active in community life. Sylvia was an early member of Hadassah, the Jewish women's service and educational organization. Fred was involved with the Los Alamos Little Theater and in many musical performances. Music was an important theme in his life.

Fred Reines worked on the Manhattan Project in the Theoretical Division under Richard Feynman. Reines later became a group leader.

After the war and after participating in several early hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific and at the Nevada Test site, Fred Reines recalled in his Nobel lecture in 1995, a turning point.

"I was involved during, and then subsequent to, the war in the testing of nuclear bombs, and several of us wondered whether this man-made star could advance our knowledge of physics. For one thing this unusual object certainly had lots of fissions in it, and hence, was a very intense neutrino source."

In 1951, he asked his boss, the Theoretical Division Leader Carson Marks for a period of "leave in residence so that I could ponder," Reines recalled in his Nobel acceptance speech. "I moved to a stark empty office, staring at a blank pad for several months searching for a meaningful question worthy of life's work."

Out of this period of soul-searching the neutrino project was born.

In 1955, working with Clyde Cowan, Reines led a project at Hanford, Wash., that provided evidence for a larger effort at Savannah River, South Carolina where the detection of free neutrinos was confirmed.

"He was the driving force for the experiment," said team member Herald Kruse, at the time a graduate student at Los Alamos. Kruse presented a paper on the experiments at an international neutrino conference in Santa Fe last year.

"When he talked, it was impressive. He tried to lay it out so coherently and convincingly," Kruse said. "I hoped some of his enthusiasm for experiments and life would rub off on me, and it did, a little bit at least."

Fred and Sylvia spent their last years in southern California, where Fred was professor emeritus at the University of California Irvine and founding dean of the School of Physical Sciences.

The event at Fuller Lodge marked the confluence of these two important institutions in the life of Fred Reines. Jackie Dooley, an archivist at UCI, shared anecdotes, archival material and what she called "a bag of party favors" - photos and portraits from over the years - along with plans for future professional collaboration.

Tom Tierney, a graduate student at UCI, now a researcher at LANL in the Physics Division recalled Reines as a "very modest and wonderful person," and said, "He always had an open door."

John Hopkins served as master of ceremonies for the memorial event. Denny Erickson and Heather McLenahan, along with the society's staff and board were instrumental in organizing the event.

Kruse observed afterwards, "The common thread was the neutrino, but it was rewarding for almost everyone there for many different reasons."