A jewel of a memoir

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Cowan’s new book illustrates facets of a worthy life

By Roger Snodgrass

If and when a theatrical movie is made of George Cowan’s life, it will surely borrow heavily from his just published memoir, “Manhattan Project to the Santa Fe Institute.”


On one hand, it could be a Woody Allen comedy.

A slightly-built egghead chemist from Massachusetts finds his way to a secret scientific project in New Mexico, arriving just after the war. Like much of the rest of the country at the time, he was inspired in the opposite direction by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that pushed Prohibition on a formerly fun-loving country. Outlawing alcohol turns much of the population, including Cowan, into self-medicating chemists and part-time bootleggers with an aversion for civil authority. He advances through life, setting off one sort of chemical explosion or another all around him, largely oblivious to his trail of firecrackers and fortunately without doing too much damage.

“All went as planned,” he writes of his doctoral studies at Carnegie Tech, where he discovered that silver formate, the compound he was working on, explodes when it dries, unless handled with care, which his professor neglected to do on one occasion.

“I had instinctively moved behind him and escaped shards of flying glass. Professor Fugassi was not so fortunate, but his wounds soon healed,” Cowan said. “I learned to be even more cautious. A fortunate end result was that we obtained a patent for the synthesis of silver formate and sold it to a rocket manufacturer, Aerojet General, for several thousand dollars. Some of the proceeds helped pay my way through graduate school.”

He undoubtedly had a gift — and many gifts at that — but does not deny that “much seems to have been due to chance.”

That’s one part of the book, an intimate exercise in self-awareness by an alert and precise observer, full of humanity and vital curiosity.

Elsewhere, he describes a friend as “a sophisticated man with a sardonic sense of humor.” In fact, it takes a sophisticated man to recognize a sardonic sensibility, which is mocking or derisive.

In the pages of this book, with so many sharp character sketches, Cowan does a classy job recognizing and modestly describing an

unmistakably unique individual, which is he.

That’s a large part of the autobiography and nobody else could have filled out this particular timeline so well and so distinctively.

Above all and well beyond the funny business, it’s a story of success, without saying so.

Cowan became one of the most influential figures of his generation, participated in many of its greatest events and discoveries, not least of which was birth of the atomic age.

He has been bedecked with medals, including Los Alamos National Laboratory’s highest honor, the Los Alamos Medal, for his technical achievements and advances.

In the next decades, he went on to become an important civic leader at home, a founder of Los Alamos National Bank, for example, and a national and international scientific trailblazer in the world outside.

As a kind of executor and administrator of the scientific empire he had helped to establish in the world, he retired and helped create the Santa Fe Institute, an influential scientific think-tank in its own right. The Santa Fe Institute liberated the multi-disciplinary aspects of the Los Alamos project, to play a role in the postmodern science of the 21st century having to do with complexity, emerging properties and self-organizing systems.

Meanwhile, in the last two decades Cowan has gone on to yet another commanding interest, “having to do with neuroscience and its relationship to behavior and the world of human affairs,” as he describes it in his book. In this realm, his influence has been instrumental, to mention only one area, in the pre-kindergarten and early-childhood learning programs in the state of New Mexico.

When Cowan takes on something, it has now become clear, the world changes.  

Mercifully short chapters get right to the point, and they are not the same old points.

Speaking of Edward Teller, often described as the father of the hydrogen bomb, Cowan recalls a debate he had with Teller at Fuller Lodge. The two men agreed not to talk about, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Manhattan Project director of the lab, whose loss of security clearance at that time and Teller’s role in the matter made it a hot issue.

“I suggested a topic, ‘The illusion of power,” Cowan writes. “Teller argued that we could not depend on illusions, that our power had to be real and superior and demonstrably ready to use.’ As for himself, Cowan said, “I argued that in much of history the perception of power was more important than the reality. Now we must focus on promoting the illusion. Actual military use would be truly catastrophic.”

Later, Cowan interjects another insight, talking about a regular game of poker among some theoretical physicists, presided over by the head of the theoretical physics group, Carson Marks.

“Edward Teller mentions the game in his Memoirs (page 302),” Cowan notes. “I particularly liked to see him because he had a tendency to draw to inside straights.”

Such anecdotes and one-two combinations make the book not only easy, but fascinating to read.

Hans Bethe, the Nobel laureate, who figured out the mechanism that causes the collapse of a supernova, is recalled heading a panel interpreting particle samples from Soviet nuclear tests.

“It’s time to write our summary,” Bethe said. “It can be a long document about what we don’t know or a short one about what we know.”

“We wrote a short one,” Cowan observes.

In the same sense, this 179-page memoir, with index and photographs, is more valuable for what the author knows, not for how much he could go on about it.

Extraordinarily direct and uncluttered, beautifully written by one of the best of the best who was there then and is still here today, “Manhattan Project to Santa Fe Institute” is worth its weight in the rarest gemstones.

Cowan, who turned 90 on Feb. 15, will talk about his newly published book at 5:15 p.m. Thursday at the Bradbury Science Museum, followed by a book signing next door at the Otowi Station Bookstore and Science Museum Shop.