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After 56 years at Brown and an untallied number of lectures and students, Nobel prize-winning physicist Leon Cooper is calling it quits. “It’s just time” to stop teaching, he says. “It’s good to quit when you’re at the top of your game.”

Photos by Mike Cohea
Leon Cooper looks out at his students on his last day of class.
Cooper, the Thomas J. Watson Sr. Professor of Science and director of the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, won the Nobel in 1972 along with John Bardeen and Robert Schrieffer for their work on superconductivity. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he also has an arrangement of electrons named after him: the Cooper pair. And it's believed that the name of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory is partly a tribute to him. Although Cooper will no longer be teaching at Brown, he plans to keep conducting research, chasing down grants and collaborating with colleagues at Brown and beyond.

To the non-physicist, his final lecture, which was part of his class “Flat Earth to Quantum Uncertainty: On the Nature and Meaning of Scientific Explanation,” was a bit of a challenge, touching as it did on quantum mechanics, the Dirac vacuum, the decay of positronium, and electrodynamics. “Any questions so far?” he asked about halfway through. “It’s all obvious, isn’t it?” No hands were raised.

Fortunately, the lecture was not all science. He also reminisced about his friendship with famed physicist Julian Schwinger—“the greatest calculator since Newton”—and scientist Richard Feynman—“quite a character.” Cooper recalled when Schwinger once gave a presentation at a conference in which he explained the number of days he’d spent on his calculations to prove his new theory. Feynman stood up afterwards and said, “I can do that much more quickly.”

But students at the final class, which was held on April 24, wanted to know more about Cooper himself. At the end, when he invited questions from students, they asked mostly about his career and life. Here's an edited sampling:

Q: Can you offer us some advice?
A: Pick something you’ll be passionately interested in because if you do, you’ll be willing to work hard. And you have to work hard.… That’s my advice. Other advice comes at a high price.

Q: Why did you choose physics?
A: I thought, if I don’t understand physics I am never going to understand this deep stuff. It’s easier to understand biology than it is physics.

Q: What would you tell someone who’s bored with science?
A: You’re missing something wonderful.

Q: How has Brown changed since you arrived?
A: It used to be, you’d go over to the president’s office, you’d say, ‘Barney [Barnaby Keeney], how about doing this?’ He would say, ‘That’s a good idea. Let’s do it.’ Now you have to go through 25 committees.

Q: What do you plan to do after this class?
A: I’m just going to relax for a while.

Comments (8)
Great respects to the great physicist! And strongly agree with his explanation of why choose physics.
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30+ yrs ago, I took a physics class from Dr. Cooper - blessed.
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I have interviewed applicants to Brown for many years. Leon's story of being a Nobel laureate teaching undergraduates is always one I share with them. Thank you for your contribution to the Brown exoerience!
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After three years of tooting too much on my Bassoon, I was told to change majors by Dean Morse. After a year working at Harvard I took Cooper's brilliantly taught course on Quantum Mechanics, a subject I had always been fascinated by, aced both semesters and then went to work in Atomic and Laser Physics. Cooper taught the course right out of Dirac! Every day he would enter the room and write the Schrodinger equation on the upper left hand side of the blackboard, and we would then analyze the Hamiltonian for a particular system. It was the only physics course I needed to take to succeed in a 10 year research career that lasted until we had to pay for Vietnam, causing the R&D money to run out. One of the projects I worked on, the basic research in HF vibrational energy transfer, eventually made the Star Wars laser possible, something that helped end the cold war. Thanks for the vote of confidence Professor Cooper, your course was an example of how physics ought to be taught!
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When I interviewed at Brown my junior year in high school -- the spring of 1962 -- I told Dean Doebler that I planned to major in physics and casually mentioned that I was fascinated by superconductors. Eighteen months later during Freshman Week, at the first meeting of incoming physics majors, a guy came up to me, read my nametag, and said "Hi, I'm Leon. I'm your advisor." That's always been the essence of the Ivys to me: a broken-nose 18-year-old lunk gets a Nobel Prize Winner as an advisor, because an admissions officer remembers a remark. (Cooper didn't have the Nobel yet then, but everyone knew it was just a matter of the Committee getting over the fact that Bardeen already had one.) 
Physics didn't work out, in part because I ignored Leon's advice NOT to go out for wrestling and took his advice to learn Russian, but fortunately a guy named van Dam came along with a subject I could do, and I went over to the dark side -- computer science. A few years later when I was working at the Computer Lab and teaching with Andy, Dr. Cooper married my secretary. 
By the way, it's quite certain that Sheldon Cooper was named for Leon; Chuck Lorre, the producer of BBT, has said so.
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I joined Brown as a graduate student in the fall of 1972, the year Prof. Cooper received the Nobel prize. Coming from India, I had never seen a Nobel laureate before. So, I was full of regards for such an eminent personality. I used to see Prof. Cooper in the Barus and Holley building, where I had an office. I remember, in those days, I had written and talked to numerous Indian friends, announcing proudly that I was studying at an university, where I see a Nobel laureate practically everyday. It was a very proud period of my life.
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This was so much the case that in the early days of the Cold War, one heard it said that while World War I was the chemist's war and World War II was the physicist's war (Star Wars laser), World War III, if it ever came, would be the applied mathematician's war. Those of us who have spent time with you Prof.Dr. Cooper are optimistic about our common future.
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I took third-semester class from Prof Cooper, which was mostly relativistic quantum theory, QED and intro to quantum field theory.. a fantastic teacher, inspirational, and a great human being. Later he led the oral exam part of the PhD qualifier, I was terrified! But in hindsight, the grilling from one of the greatest minds in history was a character building experience. Later did some joint collaboration from the old Sanders Associates ("the east coast Hughes Aircraft") with his company NESTOR, again pioneering work there coming out of his work along with that of his former students, on the physics of neural cognition. Leon Cooper is the quintessential physics genius, he challenged us all to be our best and to think out of the box. Happy retirement Prof Cooper! Hope you still come around the Department from time to time to give a talk or two. Let us all know! 
Harvey Woodsum
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