Remembering experimental particle physicist George Trilling

Trilling, a physicist at Berkeley Lab and longtime professor at Cal, was a leader in the high-energy physics community. He lived in Berkeley for 60 years and was passionate about traveling.

George H. Trilling: Sept. 18, 1930 – April 30, 2020

Obituary written by Maya and David Trilling: George was born in Bialystok, Poland in 1930 where his family owned a blanket factory. A few months after he was born, his family moved to Nice, France. His grandfather was worried about the political situation at the time in Poland, especially for Jews like themselves.  

It was in Nice that George’s earliest memories developed. There, he learned to speak French. This gave him added pleasure the year he spent in Paris at the Ecole Polytechnique and on the two sabbaticals he spent in Switzerland and when he worked at CERN. His last sabbatical was also in Paris.

During these early years of George’s life, he and his family spent the first part of their summers in the Swiss and French Alps and the second part traveling around Europe. It was from these summer experiences that he developed his lifelong passion for the mountains and for traveling.

In the late 1930s, with the Italians having made an alliance with the Germans, and Nice being so close to the Italian border, George’s family found themselves fearful for their future. By late 1940, via some circuitous routes, they eventually all made it to the United States. They first lived in Chicago where George’s uncle and brother went to college. They later moved west after the boys graduated and went to graduate school in California.

George and his family settled in Los Angeles where his parents and grandparents lived for the rest of their lives. His university education was at Caltech. He got his undergraduate degree in 1951 and his Ph.D. in 1955. For his Ph.D., George’s graduate advisor was Nobel Laureate Carl Anderson. 1955 was also the year that George got married. His bride, Maya Monic, was also born in Poland and lived in France as a child.  

George started his academic career at the University of Michigan in 1957. In 1961 he moved to UC Berkeley.  

Photo: Courtesy

George lived the last 60 years of his life in Berkeley. He enjoyed picnicking and hiking in Tilden, while Lake Anza was a favorite summer destination. With his children, and later with his grandchildren, he enjoyed Tilden’s steam trains, the little farm and Jewel Lake. He also took pleasure in visiting the Lawrence Hall of Science, particularly with his grandchildren. As walking became more difficult, outings were largely limited to the Berkeley Marina where he enjoyed viewing the kite flying, taking a nice walk around the well-marked trails, and appreciating the glorious views.  

George also enjoyed traveling to professional meetings, for vacation, or combining the two with Maya. He loved driving on the narrow mountain roads to reach particular destinations.  

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

George is survived by his wife, Maya; two sons, David and Stephen (wife Wendi), daughter Yvonne (husband Daniel Kirsch), and four grandchildren.  In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Berkeley Physics Department.  

Photo: Courtesy

Obituary written by Robert Cahn, a physicist at Berkeley Lab: George Trilling, an experimental particle physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and longtime professor at UC Berkeley, who for decades was a leader in the high-energy physics community, passed away April 30, 2020, at the age of 89.

He began his career using cloud chambers under the direction of Carl Anderson, discoverer of the positron, and finished as a member of one of the two teams that discovered the Higgs boson. Born in Bialystok, Poland, he had emigrated with his family to France in 1931 and then to the U.S. in 1940.

He joined UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab in 1960 and co-led a research team with Gerson Goldhaber, initially using the bubble chamber technique. Bubble chambers were used to identify particles and particle interactions by their visible tracks, captured in photographic film.

In 1972 the Trilling-Goldhaber group joined with a team led by Burton Richter and Martin Perl at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) to study electron-positron collisions at a new facility, SPEAR (Stanford Positron Electron Asymmetric Rings). Their collaboration discovered the remarkable J/psi particle, simultaneously found by a group headed by MIT Professor Samuel Ting. The discovery led to the award of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1976. The joint team at SLAC then discovered “charmed” particles, proving the existence of the fourth quark.

Trilling was instrumental in establishing the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) as the highest-priority HEP project in the 1980s. As the SSC project developed, George became spokesperson for one of the two large detector collaborations, the Solenoidal Detector Collaboration (SDC). When the SSC project was terminated in 1993, Trilling continued on with the ATLAS collaboration, working at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at CERN.

Trillling was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and served as President of the American Physical Society in 2001. He served as chair of the UC Berkeley Department of Physics from 1968-72, and directed the Berkeley Lab Physics Division from 1984-87. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in science (1951) and Ph.D. in physics (1955) from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.