PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Leon N Cooper, Nobel laureate and professor of physics at Brown University for more than five decades, accepted the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal at the University’s 245th Commencement ceremony Sunday, May 26, 2013. The medal, which has been awarded 29 times since its establishment in 1919, is the highest honor bestowed by the Brown faculty.
Mary Louise Gill, professor of philosophy and classics and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, presented the medal and read a citation. “Brown faculty, students, and staff of ensuing generations have been the beneficiary of your wisdom, your wit, your joy, and, above all, your great love of the discovery and communication of knowledge,” Gill said. “Your gentle presence and keen intellect loom large on this historic campus, and Brown without Professor Cooper is quite impossible to imagine.”
“I’m extremely flattered, especially because it’s an award given by the faculty, my colleagues,” Cooper said in an interview. “That makes it specially meaningful. I’m very grateful to Brown for providing me with a place where I could be productive.”
Former Rosenberger awardees include Theodore Francis Green, Howard Robert Swearer, Claiborne Pell, and Ruth J. Simmons. The faculty voted in April to award the medal to Cooper.
“Leon Cooper is a giant in the world of physics, yet he wears his mantle of accomplishments lightly,” said James Valles, professor and chair of the Department of Physics. “It is extraordinary how engaged in Brown and accessible Leon has remained since winning the Nobel Prize in 1972. He has served as an effective mentor and adviser to countless students and junior faculty over the years. He has burnished our reputation by his scientific prowess and through the many students he has reached over his 55-year career at Brown.”
Fifty-five years of crossing disciplines
Cooper came to Brown in 1958, having just published a paper the year before titled simply Theory of Superconductivity, with colleagues John Bardeen and Robert Schrieffer. Their theory, known as BCS, was the first credible explanation of the property of some metals to conduct electricity without resistance. The trio accepted the Nobel Prize in Physics for BCS theory in 1972, and their work continues to fuel new experiments and discoveries in superconductivity.
However, Cooper’s research and teaching at Brown was hardly limited to superconductivity, or even physics. His work spans disciplines from physics to neuroscience to philosophy.
“Basically, I’m a problem solver,” Cooper said. “I’m intrigued by problems, and I’m not fastened to any particular technique. The only real technique I have, I think, is to see through very complex problems and to reduce them to a hard-core minimum, and focus on that.”
It’s the hardest of problems that seem to intrigue him most.
In 1955 when Cooper began working on superconductivity, there were those who had doubts that the problem could be solved at all. Indeed, Cooper and his colleagues succeeded in solving superconductivity where some of the greatest minds in physics — Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr, to name a few — had previously failed.
After coming to Brown, Cooper continued to work and publish on superconductivity, but soon felt moved to investigate new questions. “The work had gotten super-technical and just didn’t please me,” he said. “I felt that, for me, it had played itself out.”
He turned his attention to another difficult problem: understanding how learning and memory take place in the brain. His interest in the topic grew partly out of a conversation with a graduate student. “We thought, how is that we understand neurons quite well, but no one has a clue how or where memory is stored,” he said.
With the help of several colleagues, Cooper began investigating ways to model the workings of the brain’s visual cortex. The model was based on the idea that synapses, the structures that carry chemical signals between neurons, were crucial in memory. Along with Elie Bienenstock (now a professor of applied mathematics at Brown) and Paul Munro, Cooper published a theory in 1982 that would become known as BCM theory, one of the first mathematical models showing how synaptic modification could lead to some forms of learning and memory. The paper describing the theory has been cited more than 1,000 times.
Cooper’s work on BCM and his other activities in brain research laid crucial groundwork for Brown’s thriving programs in neuroscience and brain science. It also led to new lines of research for Cooper in artificial neural networks, machine learning, and pattern recognition.
More recently, Cooper has pushed into yet another new area of research, looking at the way radiation affects genes and cells. “We’re getting some very exciting amazing results,” he said.
The freedom to explore new problems and go where the questions lead is something for which Cooper is grateful. “That’s one of the things that has always made me very happy at Brown,” he said. “I can do what I want to and for me that’s everything.”
Cooper continues to teach classes and work with colleagues to solve new problems. It’s the search for new solutions that drives him, not the pursuit of prizes.
“People ask me: What did you do after your Nobel Prize?” Cooper said. “Did you go to work everyday trying to win another one? Absolutely not. You just go to work.”
Leon N Cooper
Leon Cooper was born in 1930 in New York, where he attended Columbia University (A.B. 1951; A.M. 1953; Ph.D. 1954). He became a member of the Institute for Advanced Study (1954-55) after which he was a research associate of Illinois (1955-57) and later an assistant professor at the Ohio State University (1957-58). Cooper joined Brown University in 1958, where he became Henry Ledyard Goddard University Professor (1966-74) and where he is the Thomas J. Watson Sr. Professor of Science, appointed in 1974.
Cooper has been an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow (1954-55), Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellow (1959-66) and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow (1965-66). He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and American Academy of Arts and Sciences; sponsor, Federation of American Scientists; member of American Philosophical Society, National Academy of Sciences, Society of Neuroscience, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Phi Beta Kappa, and Sigma Xi. Cooper was also on the Governing Board and Executive Committee of the International Neural Network Society and a member of the Defense Science Board.
The Rosenberger Medal
The Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal is awarded through the Susan Colver Rosenberger Fund, established by Jesse L. Rosenberger in 1919 as a memorial to his wife, the daughter of Charles K. Colver, Class of 1842. His gift provided that from time to time a medal should be awarded for “specially notable or beneficial achievement.”
Previous recipients include Sheila Blumstein, the Albert D. Mead Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences and former interim president of Brown; Theodore Francis Green, former governor and senator from Rhode Island; Brown presidents Ruth J. Simmons, Vartan Gregorian, Howard R. Swearer and Henry M. Wriston; Charles Evans Hughes, former chief justice of the United States; Artemis A.W. Joukowsky, chancellor emeritus, and Martha Sharp Joukowsky, professor emerita; Alexander Meiklejohn, educator and Amherst College president; Sen. Claiborne Pell, the longest-serving U.S. senator in Rhode Island history; Stephen Robert, the 19th chancellor of Brown University; John D. Rockefeller Jr.; Thomas J. Watson Jr., former vice chancellor; and Mary Emma Woolley, educator and Mt. Holyoke president.