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George Cowan, bomb project scientist, dies

ALBUQUERQUE -- George Cowan, a chemist who influenced everything from the Manhattan Project and the hunt for evidence of the Soviet Union's first nuclear tests to the iconic Santa Fe Opera, died Friday at his home in Los Alamos. He was 92.

After doing graduate studies at Princeton, Cowan continued his nuclear research as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. According to the Santa Fe Institute -- a nonprofit science think tank he co-founded -- Cowan was a troubleshooter for the effort at various research sites around the country and was among the few people who had knowledge of the bomb's separate components.

Cowan worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for nearly 40 years. He started in 1949 as a scientist and went on to serve as a director of chemistry and as associate lab director of research.

Within weeks of his arrival, he began directing efforts to turn up radioactive fallout in samples that were collected near the Soviet border. What Cowan and his team detected indicated the Soviets were in possession of a nuclear bomb.

Cowan was considered one of the world's experts on nuclear weapons diagnostics by 1956, according to a biography from the lab. He was also appointed to the White House Science Council during the Reagan administration.

It was during one of his meetings with the council that he looked around the room and thought about the need to educate the next generation of scientists to ensure the government would continue to have a valuable cadre of advisers.

Conversations about the formation of the Santa Fe Institute followed. "He was a superb judge of people," institute co-founder David Pines said. "He had a real instinct for who was a promising scientist and who was not and this was invaluable to him as he became a manager at Los Alamos."

Bill Enloe, chief executive of Los Alamos National Bank, which was founded by Cowan, said the chemist had a unique ability to lead people.

"It was not by intimidation or by position. It was because what he said made so much sense," Enloe said.

Enloe ticked off a list of Cowan's accomplishments that ranged from his scientific accolades and the start of the scientific think tank to the early childhood development programs in New Mexico that he influenced.

Then there was Cowan's love of travel, food, wine and music. He served on the board of the Santa Fe Opera and was the first treasurer of the opera's foundation. The venue today draws thousands of visitors from around the world to its unique outdoor stage.

Friends used words such as intelligent and practical to describe Cowan, who lived in the same modest home in Los Alamos since moving there with his wife decades ago. His wife, Helen "Satch" Dunham, was also a chemist. She died last year and the couple had no children.

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