George T. Reynolds, 1917-2005

George T. Reynolds was born on May 27, 1917 in Trenton, N.J. The son of a Trainmaster for the Pennsylvania Railroad, he never strayed far from his central New Jersey roots. He received his Physics Bachelor’s from Rutgers University in 1939 and his Ph.D in Physics from Princeton University in 1943. George’s thesis work was on shock waves, and it was no accident that he was quickly sought out for the Manhattan Project. 

There were few examples of large explosions to test the scaling laws George had used in his thesis work. Shortly after he arrived at Los Alamos, an ammunition ship exploded at Port Chicago, just north of San Francisco, and George was sent to estimate the size of the blast from the surrounding damage. As a cocky young man, he reported fifteen hundred fifty tons TNT equivalent, plus or minus fifty, which was an absurdly small error estimate, given the uncertainties. As luck would have it, the ship's bill of laden indicated fifteen hundred forty tons and George was, quite by accident, immediately proclaimed an expert. He went on to work with George Kistiakowsky on the Fat Man plutonium bomb, and was among the first sent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to assess damage. He was awarded the Army-Navy Certificate of Appreciation for his contributions.

In 1946, George accepted a faculty position at Princeton University, where he remained through the end of his life. At Princeton he soon became interested in cosmic ray research under the influence of John A. Wheeler, and a group under George’s leadership was formed which he steered in a direction heavily favoring the high energy particles aspect of cosmic rays. By 1949 he had begun staffing with cloud chamber experts Ronald Rau from Caltech and Joe Ballam from Berkeley for a major effort in high altitude experiments at Echo Lake, Mount Evans, Colorado. In 1952 George, who had attained tenure a year before, hired as an instructor a young highly recommended Ph.D from the University of Chicago who had been working on cosmic ray radiation, Sam Treiman. Recruiting young promising scientists is something George has done all his life with great success. Among those who joined the cosmic ray group were Jack Keuffel, Georgio Salvini, Riccardo Giacconi, Val Fitch and Jim Cronin, the last three of whom were to win Nobel prizes.

While the group, under the influence of Val Fitch, and later Jim Cronin focused more and more on the recently discovered “strange particles” George was trying to grow organic scintillation crystals of large area (because of the low cosmic ray flux) as detectors of ionizing particles. As he was having trouble with cracks in the crystals he had the idea to try dissolving the scintillating organic substance in a liquid. In a short time he had prepared a solution which showed a scintillation efficiency comparable to that of the organic crystal. George and his two collaborators, Salvini and Harrison published a letter to the editor – Phys. Rev. 78, 488 (1950) – in which they reported their results for various liquids and solutions. It did not take long for the liquid scintillator counter to become one of the most used particle detectors in high energy physics experiments.

By the nineteen sixties, all the activities of the cosmic ray group centered on particle experiments at the Brookhaven Cosmotron, the Berkeley Bevatron, and the Princeton-Penn Accelerator. George, while pursuing his own studies in luminescence, continued as director of the “Cosmic Ray Lab”, later named “Elementary Particles Lab”. This was truly a wonderful place to do physics, where professors, post-docs, and graduate students mixed in a friendly and most productive atmosphere.

Around 1970, George, now in his middle 50's, took the unusual step of completely changing career directions. From his work on particle track detection, he realized that image intensifiers could be used to record very weak sources of light, which enabled opportunities in biological observations, including bioluminescence and X-ray diffraction. Protein crystallography was becoming important in the late 1960's, but it involved slow, cumbersome film recording of the diffraction patterns. But with image intensifiers diffraction data could be quickly acquired and, with graduate students Tom Minor, Jim Milch, and Sol Gruner, George began the development of automated x-ray detectors. This led to the CCD detectors that now collect most of the world's protein structural data.

Seeking to combine his love of sea and science, George sought and received an appointment at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, where he spent many summers studying marine luminescence. In his last decade, he focused on luminescent phenomena pertaining to mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal vents. During this time, he was an Adjunct Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In the late 1960s an environmental consciousness began sweeping the world’s campuses. Along with Marvin Goldberger, Irvin Glassman, and Robert Jahn, George persuaded Princeton’s President Goheen and Provost Bowen to establish a new research unit independent of the University’s department structure, at a time when the University had very few non-Departmental units. One of George’s memorable phrases was that a University needed to guard against “the hardening of the categories.” George served as the first director (1971 – 1973) of the Center for Environmental Studies, and at considerable personal cost championed the independence of the Center and established standards of excellence and internal peer review. He guided and encouraged its first investigators as they chose unconventional cross-disciplinary research topics (in energy conservation in buildings, in indoor air quality, in the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and in the values involved in environmental decision-making). He helped secure the first external funds and identified the first investigators, including Robert Socolow, Harold Feiveson, Margaret Fels, Frank von Hippel, and Robert Williams. George inspired with the adage that a good university researcher should write only either the first or the last paper on any subject.

George Reynolds was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of many professional societies. In 1974, he was named to the Rutgers University board of trustees, and chaired its research and graduate education committee. Over the years he served on many advisory panels, and held several fellowships and visiting professorships at Imperial College, London, Cambridge University, and Oxford University.

George had a longstanding interest in music (he played the violin and viola), and also in sport although he contracted polio in the fifties which left him with a limp. But his greatest love was for the sea (he was an avid surf fisher and sailor), and this from a very young age. In 1943, when just about everybody in the Physics department was leaving for Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb, George wanted to join the Navy, not Los Alamos. So he tried to enlist in the Navy, but was turned down because he wore glasses. Not one to take "no" for an answer, he succeeded in having the "no glasses" requirement waived. Once enlisted, he married his sweetheart, Virginia, and awaited orders. The letter came ordering him to head immediately for...Los Alamos, to his dismay!

George had a wonderful sense of humor, and was blessed with a remarkable ability to foresee scientific opportunities far before others, and work tirelessly to bring these into being. His colleagues, students and family (to which he was deeply devoted) will always remember him as the person who saw the way, and then made it happen.