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George Trilling
In Memoriam

George Trilling

Professor of Physics, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
George Trilling, whose career in physics spanned from the time of cloud chambers to the high-energy collider that discovered the Higgs boson and who led major research programs throughout his career, died in Berkeley on April 30, 2020.

George was born in 1930 in Bialystok, Poland, where his family owned a blanket factory. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Nice, France. Summers provided the family the opportunity for trips to the Alps, where George developed a life-long passion for the mountains. By 1940, as a Jewish family near the border with Germany’s ally Italy, the Trillings feared for their safety and ultimately fled by a circuitous route to the United States. They settled in Pasadena, where George’s his older brother and his uncle were already students at the California Institute of Technology. George followed them to Caltech, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student under Carl Anderson, the discoverer of the positron and the muon.

Working with a cloud chamber, George studied the decays of strange particles, so named because they lived a long time before decaying, typically a tenth of a billionth of a second. These sub-atomic particles left characteristic vee-shaped tracks in the chamber. His thesis, “A Cloud Chamber Investigation of Charged V Particles,” was completed in 1955.That same year George married Madeleine (“Maya”) Monic, who also had been born in Poland and lived in France before coming to the U.S. 

After continuing for a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, George was appointed assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Before moving to Ann Arbor, the Trillings spent a year in Paris, where George was on a Fulbright fellowship. He worked at the Ecole Polytechnique in the group of Louis Leprince-Ringuet. Upon his return to the United States, George joined the group headed by Donald Glaser, whose invention of the bubble chamber transformed particle physics. Using this powerful new instrument, he collaborated with Glaser, John Kadyk, John Brown, Jack Vander Velde, and Daniel Sinclair.

In 1959, Glaser joined the physics department at UC Berkeley, and a year later Trilling, Kadyk, and Brown joined him in Berkeley, where George was appointed as an associate professor. In 1960, Glaser won the Nobel Prize and then announced he was switching his research to biophysics. Thirty-year-old Trilling took over as leader of the Berkeley group, which continued its collaboration with their Ann Arbor colleagues. In 1963, George joined with Professor Gerson Goldhaber in forming and then co-leading a new group at the “Rad Lab,” today known as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which included Kadyk, Brown, and Sulamith Goldhaber, Gerson’s wife, who died tragically in December 1965.

The strange particles, especially K-mesons, also known as kaons, remained the focus of George’s research from his thesis until the early 1970s. Kaons played a central role in the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. The “ordinary’’ nuclear matter of protons and neutrons is now understood to be made up of two basic quarks, u and d. Kaons contain a third kind of quark, the s, for strange. As a consequence, kaons reveal aspects of basic physical laws inaccessible to “ordinary’’ matter. Kaons decay rapidly into less massive particles, and the subsequent decay patterns provide insight into the fundamental subatomic forces. 

Glaser’s bubble chamber was an enormous advance over the cloud chamber. Charged particles left clean tracks of tiny bubbles that could be photographed and carefully measured. However, neutral particles like photons and neutral pions, which themselves decay into a pair of photons, were invisible. To circumvent this, Trilling’s group filled the bubble chambers with liquid xenon, its large nuclear charge converting these decay photons into electron-positron pairs, which did leave tracks. This was essential for studying the many kaon decays that include neutral pions.

When the Trilling-Goldhaber group formed, their focus turned from decays of the kaon to the study of kaon collisions with protons and neutrons, still using the bubble chamber technique. Experiments were carried out at the Bevatron at the Lawrence Radiation Lab, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, and at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The collisions produced “resonances,” which were actually new particles that decayed rapidly. The analysis of kaon decays and resonances required great analytical skills, and it was here that George excelled and for which he became renowned.

In 1972, Trilling and Goldhaber, together with William (Willy) Chinowsky, were invited to join a team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) led by Burton Richter and Martin Perl in designing and operating the Mark I detector for a new accelerator, SPEAR, which would collide electrons and positrons. Mark I was novel in that it measured particles emerging in all directions from the collision, covering the full solid angle, 4. Its design became the prototype for all detectors at future colliding particle accelerators. Drawing on his experience in analyzing bubble chamber events, George wrote the code for event reconstruction and analysis. He returned from a sabbatical at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 1974, just in time to participate in the Nobel-Prize-winning discoveries of the J/psi resonance and a new electron-like particle, the tau, as well as finding conclusive evidence for the existence of charmed quarks. The Berkeley group continued to work at SLAC in developing an upgraded detector, Mark II, which operated successively at SPEAR, at a higher-energy machine PEP, and finally at the Stanford Linear Collider, the SLC, where it was used to study the Z boson.

In the mid-1980s, the United States committed to building the Superconducting Super Collider, the SSC, near Waxahachie, Texas. Large detectors were to be constructed at opposite sides of its 54-mile circumference ring. George was named the spokesperson for the first of the detectors, the Solenoidal Detector Collaboration (SDC), in recognition of his pre-eminent position in the high-energy physics community. While substantial progress was made in developing the accelerator and the SDC, the SSC was terminated by Congress in October 1993. Thereafter, he was the leader of a successful effort to involve American teams in the CERN program to build a collider with the same goals as the SSC, but on a smaller scale, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The Berkeley team that had worked on the SSC then joined ATLAS, one of the two major collaborations at the LHC, and on July 4, 2012, both of these collaborations, ATLAS and CMS, announced the Nobel-Prize-winning discovery of the Higgs boson.

Throughout his career George was asked to take on significant leadership responsibilities. As chair of the physics department from 1968 until 1972, he skillfully steered the department through the turmoil associated with the student protest movement on the Berkeley campus. From 1984 to 1987 he was the head of the physics division and associate laboratory director at LBNL. He was the president of the American Physical Society in 2001. These, however, were only the outward signs of his leadership. He was a leader in every role he played because of his exceptional capability as a scientist and his uncompromising insistence on the highest standards of research. He was the wise counselor to whom one went, whether the problem was a matter of science or a matter that required human understanding.

On campus, George initially taught the upper-division course on particles and nuclei, but over the years he taught a variety of courses at all levels. He was advisor and mentor to students and postdocs, but also to his many colleagues at Berkeley and throughout the high energy physics community, who sought to learn from his exceptional ability to extract the true meaning of an experiment’s data and to express it in clearly written prose. Among his Ph.D. students were Dan Amidei, Roger Bland, Ralph Butler, Robert Harr, John Hauptman, Fred Kral, Jimmy McNaughton, Mark Nelson, Heidi Schellman, Vic Seeger, Paul Sheldon, Eric Vella, and Darien Wood.

His service to the university also included participating in shared governance through the Academic Senate. He served as a member of the Berkeley Division's Graduate Council from 1977 to 1980 and represented Berkeley on the systemwide Senate's Coordinating Committee on Graduate Affairs in 1979-80. He also served on the Committee on Budget and Interdepartmental Relations from 1982 to 1984.

George followed politics and public policy very closely throughout his life. He could be outspoken among friends and family when political issues arose. He believed strongly in public education and sent his children to the Berkeley public schools. He was a frequent donor to political candidates who championed his values.

He is survived by his wife, Maya, who is well-known in the Berkeley community, and also by two sons, David and Stephen (wife Wendi), daughter Yvonne (husband Daniel Kirsch), and four grandchildren.

Robert Cahn