Science & Research

Nobel Prize-winning physicist enthralls first-years

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2012

 

“He’s sassy,” said Hannah Benenson ’15 as she climbed over another student to get to the middle of the row, a few seats closer to Professor of Physics Leon Cooper, Nobel Prize winner and instructor of the first-year seminar, PHYS 0100: “Flat Earth to Quantum Uncertainty: On the Nature and Meaning of Scientific Explanation.”

“It’s my favorite class,” said Alex Bok ’15, another student happy with his choice to spend an hour and a half every Tuesday and Thursday listening to Cooper passionately expound on some of history’s great scientific discoveries.

Discussing Isaac Newton and the writing of Principia, Cooper could not contain his excitement. “It seems logical when you view the ideas in the textbook, but really as it is being created, the science is just inspired conjecture,” he said in a voice both raspy and melodious. Looking exactly like a stereotypical physicist ­— pink shirt beneath a green corduroy jacket, flyaway white hair — he is dapper and witty.

“Inspired conjecture after inspired conjecture leads to a new way of looking at the world,” he said. “In this way, science is almost closer to art than logic.”

This is a man who understands scientific discovery. After graduating with a PhD from Columbia, Cooper began a quest to develop the theory of superconductivity. Superconductivity, a phenomenon occurring at extremely cold temperatures, allows metals to conduct electrons without any resistance. For years, scientists such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein attempted to explain this strange physical process and failed.

“Fortunately, I was unaware of these many unsuccessful attempts,” Cooper wrote in his memoir, “Remembrance of Superconductivity Past.” In 1957, Cooper developed the first microscopic theory for explaining superconductivity, working with fellow physicists John Bardeen and Robert Schrieffer. Cooper joined the Brown faculty in 1958.

“I like it here,” Cooper said with a satisfied nod, looking out the window of his seventh floor Barus and Holley office.

After becoming a member of the faculty, Cooper was appointed the director of the Center for Neural Science. In 1981, he helped to develop BCM, a theory that models how memory is created and stored in the brain. Named in honor of its principal investigators — Elie Bienenstock, Cooper and Paul Munro — the theory addresses neurons and the synapses that allow them to communicate with each other.

Cooper’s theory is that memory is a function of the relative strength or weakness of the synaptic connections. A strong post-synaptic depolarization would increase synaptic strength, while a weak depolarization would decrease synaptic strength. Ten years after BCM theory was developed, Mark Bear, then a professor at Brown, proved this hypothesis through experimentation.

Bear and Cooper’s research continues today. They have submitted a paper for publication that details what has happened with BCM over the past 30 years. In addition, Cooper and his colleagues are currently working with scientists from New York and Geneva, attempting to tie the theories of BCM to the ideas of “spike time-dependent plasticity,” Cooper said, or to the idea that the brain rewires based on the strength and timing of intercellular communication.

We are “trying to tie the whole thing together with the underlying physiology of the cell,” Cooper added.

At the same time, the self-proclaimed wanderer has developed a new interest: radiation. Many scientists believe that even in small doses, radiation can be harmful, but Cooper does not think this is necessarily true.

“We live in a sea of radiation,” Cooper said, adding that there may be a threshold below which radiation does not cause lasting damage.

In pilot experiments with Drosophila fruit flies, Cooper’s team has found that though the flies sustain some damage after two days of low-level radiation, cellular mechanisms kick in after 10 days to repair it.

“We share two-thirds of the fruit fly DNA, so it allows us to think about how radiation is affecting humans,” Cooper said.

Cooper encourages students to challenge him and ask difficult questions. “I love teaching undergraduates,” he said. “Graduate students already know all the theories and ideas. It’s all new to undergraduates, so they still question some of the basic concepts graduate students just accept.”

Back in the classroom, one boy raised his hand. “I was wondering why the world spins on its axis?” he asked.

Cooper stood there for a moment, in thought.

“Well, love makes the world go round,” he said, unable to stop a wry smile from flitting across his face.