In tribute to George Trilling

9/18/1930 - 4/30/2020


Some anecdotes and materials

Here is a very nice AIP interview by Ursula Pavlish, 3/1/2006.

The following might be too much for both the normal person (too complex and verbose) and particle physicist (too simple), but it does convey something important about George, and might be worth knowing about.

George was famous for his computer code that took information from tracking detectors, used for measuring particle trajectories (and therefore momentum). The physics behind tracking detectors starts with the fact that particles curve as they go through a region that has a magnetic field. So you build a cylindrical tracker that consists of a series of parallel wires in a common gas volume, and the wires are at some positive voltage. As the particles go past, gas molecules can ionize, and the electrons can drift to the wire, and cause a "blip" that can be recorded. Most trackers have a LOT of wires so that it can measure lots of points along the particle path. The Mark II tracker looks like this:

Lots of wires, and if one of the wires gets some ionization, the blip is measured and recorded as a "hit" by the computer. The goal is to get all the hits along the path and find the best circular trajectory that fits all the hits, and by "best" we mean most accurate reconstruction of the particle, and most precise value of the curvature (and hence momentum as they are related). Here's a "typical" event in the Mark II, courtesy of a paper published in 1983 "Study of Heavy Quark Production with teh Mark II at PEP" (LBL-16824):

Finding tracks was all done with a complicated computer code that took into account the precision of the measurement, trying different circles, maybe throwing out some hits to see how the path changes, etc, all with the goal of getting the most precise value of the track radius of curvature. Computers began to be up to the task of analyzing huge numbers of events in the 70s (perhaps even sometime in the 60s), and writing the tracking code was a real art. You had to really understand the detector, the physics of how the tracker works, it's resolution, how to do numerical fits and minimization, etc. And since there were lots of events analyzed, with potentially lots of tracks in each event, you had to make damn sure that your code had no bugs. This was not a job for amateurs!

George was the author of the tracking code (or maybe the earliest version of it) for the Mark II detector in the early 1980s when the main goal was searching for the Higgs (at the time, who knew we had underestimated the mass by around a factor of 5, but that's another story) and also for finding heavy quarks (heavy for the time) like the bottom and charm. And the success of the experiment was in a very real sense built upon having excellent and sophisticated tracking code that worked, and that everyone had faith in. So no one mucked with that code except George. And the amazing thing was that code had no comments in it at all, and the variables were all named things like “aa" and "bb" and "abc", and the code was full of fortran statements like "aa = aa + 1" and "b = c + d" and etc. It drove us students crazy. Apparently this didn't bother George - he could keep all these things in his head, like juggling 100s of balls and reading a book at the same time. And not dropping any of them. No one could understand his code let along actually modify it because most of it was really in his head. But apparently Heidi Schellman, one of George's students in the 1980s, got the job of doing just that. And she survived!

So, with that long preamble (apologies!) here's an anecdote courtesy of Darien Wood about George's famous tracking code, and how it was beyond mere mortals:

One of my early memories of George was a Mark II celebration, where he was given a
humorous award for his tracking code for its lack of documentation.  George's
acceptance speech was two words: "No comment"
From Drew Baden, asking George the history of the birth of the Trilling-Goldhaber group. This is from an email dated August 10, 2010:
Gerson and I got together in 1963. It really was Gerson/Sula and I. Gerson and
Sula were not completely happy in the Segre group where they worked, and
my colleagues and I had just lost our group leader, Don Glaser, who shifted
into biology. So LBL Director McMillan decided very wisely to put us together
in a single group, the Trilling-Goldhaber Group. And we lived happily ever after!
There you have it.
                               Best regards,  George	
From David Trilling:
On our second sabbatical to Europe as a family, in the Summer of 1973, we stopped over in Portugal prior to 
heading on to Geneva where we lived that year.  And at one point, during our time in Portugal, we were, I 
believe, on a boat, heading who knows where.  While on that boat, a couple of ladies came up to Mom and 
told her that they thought Dad looked like Gregory Peck.  One might consider being compared to Gregory Peck 
to be a compliment as he was, in those days, considered quite a handsome actor.  However, upon hearing what 
these two women had shared with Mom, he didn't give this comment so much as a second thought, and replied 
that it sounded like these two ladies "needed to have their eyes examined."
From Bob Cahn:
From Caltech News, February 1976 (click here for a copy):

"Among the other (Nobel) laureates were some whom Smythe (author of classic book on 
electrodynamics) termed "good students but not exceptional ... they didn't work very 
hard in my classes"

But the former student whom Smythe recalled as his all-time star achiever is George Trilling, 
BS '51, PhD '55, now professor of physics at UC Berkeley.  Smythe pulled another grade book 
from his pocket and displayed four perfect exam score for Trilling with a final grade of A-plus
I can add an anecdote myself.  Dave Jackson, perhaps 20 years ago, got intrigued by a hard problem 
in electrostatics.  He didn't consult any of the theorists, only George Trilling.	
From Heidi Schellman:
When I did the Easter bunny prank first year (which I think only Dan [Amidei] witnessed) Dave Jackson 
accepted a large Easter basket from the bunny, put it down and continued lecturing as if nothing 
had happened.   He did crack up when the bunny raised a paw and asked a smartass question about 
Dirac theory later on.  Did the same thing to George the next hour....He was rendered speechless 
for about a minute but then resumed relativistic E+M.  We were passing the bunny hat to pay for the
baskets when George noticed, turned around, pointed at his ubiquitous blue shirt and said, 
"No, really, I have 5 of these shirts".
From Drew Baden:
Once in 2001 I was reading something and somehow it was related to George, so
I sent him an email and asked him how he was doing and what he was up to.  I don't think I'd seen
him since the end days of the SSC, so it had been awhile. After a few days he called me and said
that as soon as I asked him what he was doing he looked up the APS membership list and saw that I
wasn't on it, and then said that if I had been a member I would have known what he was doing - he
was the President.  Then he asked me what my problem was and why wasn't I an APS member.   I said
that it was true, I wasn't, and it had to do with him!   The story is that back in the early half
of the 90s, Abe Seiden called me up and said that some committee wanted me to run for, I think,
Councillor.  I think of DPF, but I can't remember exactly.   So I asked him what the Councillor
did, he said he didn't know, but that I'd be replacing Henry Frisch.  So I called up Henry and asked
him, and he said he didn't really know either, but that probably meant it wasn't a big time sink.
So I called Abe and said ok.  Then Abe said something that should have tipped me off - something like
"And you are highly regarded, and it's not as if we asked other people and they said no".  That was
really strange but I figure what the hell.  So I said yes, and then the ballot came out.  Who was I
running against?  GHT!  I don't mind being the lamb in the slaughter but Abe should have told me.
Needless to say, I voted for George.   The next day or so after that, I got a bill from APS and I
was so bent out of shape about the whole thing that I tore it up and that was the end of my being
an APS member.   I told this story to George and he said he felt bad, that he had voted for me, and
then he signed me up for APS and paid 2 years dues in advance.   What a classy thing to do!
Another story from Drew Baden and George's son Stephen:
When I was a first year graduate student, I knew that I wanted to work in the Trilling-Goldhaber 
group for my thesis research, because of my undergraduate mentor, who was one of George's students 
in the 1960s (Roger Bland, he became a professor at SFSU).   So the procedure in graduate school is 
to first pass the extensive written examinations (prelims at UCB, quals at other schools), and then 
drum up some research.  So after I passed, the first thing I did was to make an appointment with 
George.  I was pretty nervous, I had heard a lot about him but had never met him.  This must have 
been around this time in 1982.   So there I was in his office, and I told him I was interested in 
doing research in his group.  The first thing he said was "Tell me something about yourself" so I 
said "well, I'm a graduate student".  George said "in what?".  I was really taken aback.  What could 
he possibly mean by that?   Wasn't I in his office, a physics professor?   Did he think literature 
PhD candidates would ask him about research? Maybe that does happen, I had no idea.  Or maybe he 
wanted to know what specialization I was in, just to see how green I was.   I probably did a few 
mumbles, and then said “well, in physics, at least I think so” and I remember he smiled that great 
smile he had.   Anyway, knowing George, I am pretty sure he was thinking way too hard, and when 
he asked me "in what?"" I’m sure he just wanted to be sure that this poor guy was in the right place, 
to be helpful, to be a good mentor.  Which he was, he was probably the BEST mentor!    And he 
became my mentor because 30 minutes with George was worth several hours with almost anyone 
else in the universe.  

Steve has a similar story that happened when Steve was back home from college on the east coast for 
a brief visit with his parents.  One of Steve's friends called him at his parents' house and George 
answered the phone.  Steve's friend said "Can I speak to Steve", and George replied "Steve who?".  
When Steve later asked him about this, George said: "Well, normally you do not live here, so I 
thought I should find out which Steve they were asking about before we went any further in the 

Typical ultimate physicist reductionist thinking!
From Steve, on George's 60th birthday surprise party:
We decided it would be great to throw a surprise 60th birthday party for dad, at my parents' house 
in Berkeley.  The problem was, how could we get him out of the house during the day on a Saturday so 
we could set everything up?  Well, it turned out dad had something to do at the office that Saturday,
which worked out great, it gave us time to set up the party and for all the guests to secretly arrive 
at our house.  I picked up my dad at work and drove him home - all the guests were standing out on my 
parents' front deck and the plan was for dad to open the front gate and everyone would yell "Surprise!" 
(you couldn't see onto the deck when the gate was closed). However, when we arrived, the gate was wide 
open, the last guest to show up apparently forgot to close it, and as we pulled up in the car my dad 
saw all of the guests for his party just standing there.  And he literally had no idea the party was 
for him, he took his time going to the trunk of the car to get his briefcase before walking onto the 
deck and eventually figuring it it out.  He said that he assumed all these people had dropped by to 
visit my mom.  And I said "Dad, you assumed that everyone from the Berkeley Physics department, and 
your own brother who lives in Los Angeles, all just happened to come by at the same time to visit mom?"  
It just never occurred to him that so many people would show up for an event about him.

Various photos courtesy of family and friends

Early Days

George with his brother Charles

George with mother Genia, her father, and older brother Charles

A very young boy George Trilling


George, mother Genia, Grandfather Oswald Trilling, at Caltech undergrad graduation 1951

With Maya at their wedding

George and Maya at their engagement part, 1954

Cal Tech photo, 1954


In Glaser's group

Hard at work at the rad lab

With Maya, Yovonne, Stephen, David, 1967 or 1968, Geneve

George, Steve, Yvonne, David, at a national park, 1968

George and Maya hosted his graduate student Roger Bland and Sally Bland at their house for the wedding ceremony in 1968. Here is a photo of George shaking the hand of Roger's grandfather


George and Gerson

SPEAR days with Burt Richter and 2 others

Probably late 1970s after J/Psi

George with a younger John Ellis

George and Yvonne in LA, 1972

George and Yvonne, outside home, Berkeley 1979


George and Maya together

At the lab

Life in the Trilling-Goldhaber group

David, Stephen, Maya, Napa valley wedding

Inducted into the NAS, 1983

NAS Induction, 1983. Carson Jeffries,George, Leo Falicov, Gareth Thomas

At Stephen's graduation from Yale in 1980

Yvonne's graduation from UCLA, 1983

Yvonne's graduation from medical school, 1988, with Maya and David

George and David, 1987


At his surprise 60th birthday party, with Stephen, Yvonne, David, Sept 1990

A present from Gerson at his surprise 60th birthday, 1990

George and Dave Jackson

Relaxing, May 1994

With granddaughter Dylan probably late 90s

George and Maya with Leon Lederman

George sharing a joke with granddaughter Dylan, 1995

Hiking with Maya

George, Maya, and Bruno Zumino

SSC Board of Overseers (BOO), around 1987
Front row: Martin Perl, George, Chris Quigg, Boyce McDaniel, Pief Panofsky, John Hulm, Marty Blume, Roy Schwitters
Back row: Maury Tigner, ??, Neal Lane, Bob Frosch, Ned Goldwasser, ??, Ed Knapp (URA President), ??, ??, ??
(Identification courtesy of Chris Quigg)

With Dylan, LA 1996

With son-in-law Daniel Kirsch, 1997

With Maya and granddaughter Polly, LA 1998


With Maya

George and Maya's 50th wedding anniversary, in Los Angeles

At APS, ca. 2000

With Maya and daughter Yvonne

Hiking, probably Aspen

Steve holding his son Joe, Maya, and George holding grandson Max, 2005

George and Maya with Max, Polly, Dylan, Joe, LA 2005

With Maya and grandsons Max and Joe, Hawaii, 2008


With Maya, Steve, daughter-in-law Wendi, grandsons Joe and Max, granddaughters Polly and Dylan, daughter Yvonne, LA, 2005

George and Maya in their living room, Berkeley 2010

George, Maya, with Roger and Sally Bland, Taiwan Restaurant, Berkeley, 2011

With Maya, grandson Max, and grandson Joe

With Charles (brother) and Leon (uncle) probably roughly 2010

With Maya, grandson Max, and grandson Joe, LA, 2011

With Steve at a birthday party, 2011

With Maya and grandson Max, Hawaii 2012

With grandson Joe, Berkeley, 2012

At California Academy of Sciences museum with Maya, Joe, Max, daughter-in-law Wendi, David, Stephen, 2013

With his brother Charles, 2014

With Dylan, 2014

With Maya, 2014

At granddaughter Polly’s high school graduation, with David, Polly, Dylan, and Maya, LA, 2014

At celebration of 50th anniversary of Suzanne & Chris McKee at Berkeley City Club, June 20, 2015. With Pat Burchat.

With David

With Maya and grandsons Max and Joe, Berkeley 2015

A neighborhood walk, 2015

With Polly, David, Maya, Dylan, Berkeley, 2017

Maya, daughter Yvonne, and granddaughter Polly

Maya, David, grandson Joe, daughter-in-law Wendi, grandson Max, and Steve, 2018

George and David, 2020