George Hsing Kwei was a brilliant scientist who loved doing research for the sheer fun of it, making notable contributions in several important fields during his expansive 39-year career, which included time at both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. His work helped win a Nobel Prize and contributed to the world-altering Human Genome Project. He was a pioneer of molecular beam chemistry and was a recipient of the prestigious Edward Teller National Fellowship.
That’s not to say science was George’s whole life. In fact, he was known for having an incredibly wide range of nonscientific interests, each of which he pursued with vigor. Of those, music was perhaps the most fundamental, although he held art, food and fine wine in similar esteem.
“His favorite subject was whatever he was working on at the time on any given day,” said Larry Kwei (LASO-MA-QA), George’s son and a 30-year veteran of the Department of Energy, now stationed at the National Nuclear Security Administration Field Office. “He was always seeking to know more about the subject.”
George would read everything he could get his hands on and then consult experts to learn more. For instance, when Larry’s sister needed a violin, George searched out references and talked with collectors and dealers across the country to the point he found not only an instrument for her, but sparked a lifelong interest in violins and bows, becoming something of an authority on the subject himself. He was also keenly interested in African art, Turkmen rugs, modern art — the list goes on.
Precision building, hi-fi stereos and hanging with Yo-Yo Ma
Gloria Kwei, George’s wife of more than 40 years, said George was incredibly dexterous. He was as adept at machining precision components for laboratory equipment as making perfectly formed potstickers, using hand-rolled wrappers made from scratch.
In 1985 — the year marking the 300th anniversary of the births of composers Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti — George felt it was the right moment to realize his longtime dream of building his own double-manual harpsichord.
With incredible patience and care, George painted and polished the instrument’s cabinet numerous times to achieve a perfectly smooth finish. He applied the gold leaf trim by hand, leaving flecks on the kitchen linoleum. The craftsmanship was excellent; the instrument was even used for a Los Alamos Concert Association performance.
Curiously enough, George didn’t play any instruments. But he was passionate about music and loved listening to it.
Always searching for the best sound quality possible, George scoured the market for top-notch hi-fi systems, going through several different setups before ultimately using his lab-honed skills to build his own stereo components. Over time, he amassed a huge collection of vinyl records and compact discs — mostly classical albums, but also folk and jazz — and in later years his garage filled with audio tubes and assorted stereo gadgetry
Those who lived in Los Alamos in the 1980s might remember George best for creating a New Mexico “first” in 1986 while serving on the board of the Los Alamos Concert Association. A few years before, George had met a violinist, Lynn Chang, who had played in college with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. With Chang as an intermediary, George managed to convince Yo-Yo Ma to perform on “the Hill,” along with Chang and pianist Richard Kogan (also a college friend). They played to a capacity audience in Duane Smith Auditorium in Yo-Yo Ma’s first-ever concert appearance in New Mexico.
Harvard at 16, a chemistry pioneer
George entered Harvard in 1955 at age 16, just four years after arriving in America from Taiwan.
Upon graduating with honors in chemistry and physics in 1959, George traveled west to the University of California-Berkeley to become the first graduate student to study and work under then rising-star chemist Dudley Herschbach — a Harvard friend, colleague and mentor.
At Berkeley, George’s research group conducted seminal experiments in molecular beam chemistry that ultimately resulted in a Nobel Prize for Herschbach in 1986.
After receiving his doctorate in 1967, George spent several years on the faculty at the State University of New York. He came to Los Alamos in 1974 as a research scientist, conducting experiments at the Lab on collisional energy transfer.
In 1982, George became the Lab’s deputy associate director for Chemistry, Earth and Life Sciences, helping
launch several cutting-edge initiatives including a molecular biology program that later contributed to the National Human Genome Project.
Back to research with a new focus
Characteristic of his inquisitive nature, George returned to research in 1988, but in a field totally new to him.
Over the next 14 years, he became a well-regarded contributor to the structural studies of materials by means of neutron and X-ray diffraction, publishing more than 100 papers in the field. He developed collaborations with scientists in Japan and across the United States.
In 1994, George moved to California to continue his research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where his wife, Gloria, was appointed a human resources manager. He stayed three years, eventually coming back to LANL as a special assistant to the director.
As an interesting aside, during this time, George drafted a letter for the director recommending to the Department of Energy that LANL develop the capability to manufacture pit weapons components after the closure of the Rocky Flats Plant. Ten years later, his son, Larry, returned to Los Alamos to assist with the effort to establish the W88 pit production capability and is now supporting the new pit production mission.
In 2000, George returned to Livermore and later received the Edward Teller Fellowship in recognition of his technical accomplishments. He began research into the development of science policy and influenced the Presidential Science Advisors.
George’s interest in policy development had a strong influence on Larry, who focuses on scientific policy development and execution as part of his current duties.
Throughout his career, George was known as much for his enthusiasm and congenial nature as for his research. He loved traveling to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Fermilab, talking to other researchers about their work once his own experiments were underway. In his own estimation, asking “dumb” questions was a great way to gain more insight into the science involved.
Shortly after receiving the Teller fellowship, George fell seriously ill. He had been taking numerous medications for years following a heart attack in 1993. The injury to his system and ongoing treatment had weakened him over time, and he was forced to retire in 2002, unable to complete the book on science policy he was writing for his Teller fellowship. He even had difficulty visiting Los Alamos because of the altitude.
With big projects off the table, George developed a new interest in writing letters to newspapers on various issues, having a number of them published. He continued listening to music, kept up with tube technology hi-fi equipment, read widely and started collecting watches. His passion for the arts remained, as did his enjoyment of food and wine.
Editor’s note: George died on June 10, 2005. He was 66.