‘Extraordinary scientist’: Former UC Berkeley physics professor George Trilling dies at 89

George Trilling physicist Berkeley Lab
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Courtesy
George Trilling in Bldg. 50 for Physics Divsion Brochure 1996

Known for his wisdom, brilliance and modesty, George Trilling, a former UC Berkeley physics professor and experimental particle physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, died April 30 at age 89.

Trilling was born in Poland and grew up in France, before emigrating to the United States in 1940. He received his bachelor’s degree and doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, or CalTech, before becoming a campus professor and joining Berkeley Lab in 1960, according to Berkeley Lab physicist Robert Cahn. Trilling served as chair of the physics department for four years and remained part of the faculty until his retirement in 1994, after which he continued to be active in research, Cahn said.

“George was just absolutely an extraordinary scientist,” Cahn said. “He was great in many ways. He was extremely careful as a scientist and set an example for how you should do science. He was a model for all the people who worked with him.”

During his graduate years at CalTech, Trilling took William Smythe’s course on electricity and magnetism, a class designed to “weed out weaklings” and test students’ analytical skills, according to a CalTech News article from 1976.

A professor to six students who later received Nobel Prizes, Smythe recognized Trilling as his “all-time star achiever” student, according to the article. Enrolled in a course in which theoretical physicists generally excel, Trilling, an experimental physicist, was nonetheless one of the best students to take the course, Cahn said.

“He had such terrific insight and clarity of thought about physics,” Cahn said. “He was just truly remarkable.”

Trilling co-founded the Trilling-Goldhaber experimental particle physics group and discovered the J/psi particle and “charmed” particles with a team from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

In 1983, Trilling was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The following year, he began directing Berkeley Lab’s physics division, which he did until 1987, Cahn said.

Berkeley Lab scientist Murdock Gilchriese said Trilling was one of the most influential people in his career. Trilling was a “thoughtful, careful, kind person,” and when Gilchriese encounters a problem, he sometimes asks himself, “What would George do?” which has guided Gilchriese’s career and the way he thinks. 

Trilling’s passion was physics; he loved his students and the growth he witnessed in the physics department to include women, as when he started, there were no women, said Maya Trilling, his wife of 65 years. She added that he loved physics so much he would mainly read physics books, so she made a rule that he couldn’t bring any physics books with him when they traveled together.

Outside of physics, he enjoyed classical music, culture and traveling and was very knowledgeable about politics, Maya Trilling said. She added that Trilling had an “amazing” moral fiber and a love for people.

“He was a very special man, and I was lucky to be his wife,” Maya Trilling said.

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.