Sig Hecker and Bob Cowan honored

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By Roger Snodgrass

Two hugely influential scientists received Los Alamos National Laboratory’s highest recognition.


LANL Director Michael Anastasio bestowed the 2008 Los Alamos Medal on Siegfried S. Hecker and Robert D. Cowan in a ceremony and reception at the J. Robert Oppenheimer Study Center Thursday afternoon.


Hecker, LANL director from 1986-1997, is now a professor and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.


Sharp and precise as always, he recalled in his remarks that he had become laboratory director 23 years ago to the day.


A legendary figure in many ways, he is the only lab director who worked his way up from a graduate student.


Robert Cowan is the internationally known father of atomic structure calculations and the author of “Theory of Atomic Structure and Spectra,” the fruit of 25 years of effort considered “the bible of modern atomic physics.”


His children in attendance said he was always a father first and found it remarkable that at the age of 89 he continues to tutor English-as-a-second-language students and tutor math with local students.


Cowan was introduced by Joe Abdallah, a colleague from the lab’s Theoretical division, who said he met Cowan in the late ’70s and that he would always be grateful for a quilt that Bob and his wife Wilma gave him after he lost everything in the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000.


In accepting his reward, Cowan reviewed the scientific basis of his spectral studies starting with one of the first primitive computers he had to work with in 1951.


“It only did two operations a second, but that was 50 times faster than the motor driven desk calculators that were used,” he said. Later he progressed to “serial number one” of the IBM 701 Defense Calculator.


“It didn’t always work,” he said, “but it speeded up things a great deal.”


He was especially proud of a series of international degrees he received and his travels to England, the Netherlands, Sweden, China and the former Soviet Union


“I don’t do physics any more,” he said, except for occasional queries from former theoretical division colleagues. “I’ve had a long and interesting and worthwhile run in my career and so I’m happy.”


Dave Clark, head of the lab’s Seaborg Institute for Actinide Science, introduced Hecker, who made his name and reputation on his research in plutonium, the king of the actinides, the always and ever more remarkable element.


Clark reviewed Hecker’s enormous accomplishments as director, as the chief navigator through the transitions at Los Alamos as the test moratorium put the brakes on the nuclear weapons race, stockpile stewardship began, and the Soviet Union dissolved.


Clark also gave away Hecker’s well-established secret for remembering literally everybody’s name, recalling a time when the former director ran across a parking lot to ask him his wife’s first name and then ran all the way back to a gathering to greet her by name.


Hecker’s talk, by turns characteristically perceptive, comprehensive, witty, chatty and challenging, was about why he came (skiing), why he stayed (people at Los Alamos), and why he left (because he always wanted to be a university professor).


“I didn’t come to build bombs or save the country or the world,” he said. “I had no desire to become a lab manager. Like many of my colleagues, I did it for self defense – so somebody else who could make my life miserable would not get the job.”


He also said he did it because others had made the sacrifice from which he had benefited.


Being a director was like wearing ski boots, he said. “It was fun while wearing them, but God does it feel good when you take them off.”


He said his advice was ignored, when Congress insisted on fixing the problems at the lab by taking it in exactly the wrong direction, into the hands of private industry.


He cautioned that nuclear weapons were fundamentally the responsibility of government.


To meet the new challenges of clean energy and climate change he suggested that the laboratory rise to the occasion.


“Los Alamos and nuclear energy are joined at the hip,” he said. “Nuclear energy can electrify the world or destroy it and there is a fine line between them.”


He’ll be back, he said, to talk about global proliferation issues, the subject that has preoccupied him most in recent years. He’s scheduled for a director’s colloquium next month, before he takes another trip to North Korea.


“Frankly, I’ll never leave Los Alamos,” he said.


Hecker and Cowan bring the total of inductees into what amounts to the laboratory’s hall of fame to 11.


The tradition began in 2001 when then-director John Brown awarded the 2001 medal to Hans Bethe, the Nobel laureate and former lab director Harold Agnew.