Leon Cooper's Genius

September 4th, 2014

I have interviewed applicants to Brown for many years. Leon Cooper’s story of being a Nobel laureate teaching undergraduates is always one I share with them (see “Last Class for a Nobel Laureate,” Elms,). Thank you for your contribution to the Brown experience!

Connie Morgan ’73
Comment from brownalumnimagazine.com


After three years of tooting too much on my bassoon, I was told to change majors. After a year working at Harvard, I took Leon Cooper’s brilliant course on quantum mechanics, a subject that had always fascinated me. I aced both semesters and then went to work on atomic and laser physics. Cooper taught the course right out of Dirac! Every day he would enter the room and write the Schrödinger 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 succeed in a ten-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!

Stephen Fried ’64
Comment from brownalumnimagazine.com


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 name tag, and said, “Hi, I’m Leon. I’m your adviser.”

That’s always been the essence of Brown to me: a broken-nosed 18-year-old lunk gets a Nobel Prize winner as an adviser because an admissions officer remembers a remark. (Cooper didn’t have the Nobel yet, but everyone knew it was just a matter of the Committee getting over the fact that John Bardeen already had one.)

Physics didn’t work out for me, 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 Andy 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 The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper was named for Leon. Chuck Lorre, the show’s producer, has said so.

Bob Munck ’67
Comment from brownalumnimagazine.com


I joined Brown as a graduate student in the fall of 1972, the year Professor Cooper received the Nobel Prize. Coming from India, I had never seen a Nobel laureate before, so I was full of regard for such an eminent personality. I used to see Professor 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 a university where I saw a Nobel laureate practically every day. It was a very proud period of my life.

Debendra Das ’74 ScM
Comment from brownalumnimagazine.com


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, World War III, if it ever came, would be the applied mathematician’s war. Those of us who have spent time with you, Professor Cooper, are optimistic about our common future.

Maleafisha S. Tladi ’93 ScM,’96 ScM
Comment from brownalumnimagazine.com


I took a third-semester class from Professor Cooper, which was mostly relativistic quantum theory, QED, and intro to quantum field theory. He was a fantastic and inspirational teacher, as well as a great human being. When he later led the oral exam part of the PhD qualifier, I was terrified! But in hindsight, I can see that the grilling from one of the greatest minds in history was a character-building experience.

Leon Cooper is the quintessential physics genius. He challenged us all to be our best and think out of the box. Happy teaching retirement, Professor Cooper!

Harvey C. Woodsum ’77 ScM, ’79 PhD
Comment from brownalumnimagazine.com

Although Professor Cooper is retiring from teaching, he will still be conducting research at Brown.—Editor

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September/October 2014