Who was Robert Coleman Richardson?
Robert Coleman Richardson was an American experimental physicist who won a share of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics. Working as a senior researcher in the Cornell University Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics, he along with David Lee and Douglas Osheroff discovered the property of superfluidity in helium-3 atoms which was a very vital discovery in experimental physics. Born in Washington D.C., he grew up during the World War II. As a young boy, he loved to attend school though he was not a particularly bright student. He was very active in the Boy Scouts and served as a counselor in Camp Letts, a Boy Scout Camp, during his high school years. He joined the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, initially opting for a course in electric engineering. However, he soon became bored and shifted to physics as a major. He furthered his education after his graduation and eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics from Duke University. He moved to Cornell University as a postdoctoral researcher and was promoted to assistant professor. It was during the beginning of his long career at Cornell that he became a part of the research team that discovered superfluidity in the isotope helium-3.
Childhood & Early Life
Robert Coleman Richardson was born on June 26, 1937, in Washington, D.C., U.S. to Lois Price Richardson and Robert Franklin Richardson. He had one younger sister. His father worked for a telephone company. The World War II broke out when he was a little boy and his father was called to serve in the army.
He loved going to school from a young age though it was not until much later that he became genuinely interested in the sciences. He attended Washington-Lee High School before entering Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1954.
Initially he planned to study electrical engineering but did not find the subject interesting enough to continue. Midway he changed his major to physics and received a B.S. in 1958. He completed his M.S. in 1960. During this time he also served six months of active duty in the US Army Ordnance Corps between November 1959 and May 1960.
He wanted to pursue his doctorate and entered Duke University in the fall of 1960 as a full-time graduate student. His doctoral advisor was Horst Meyer who guided the young man in his research at the low temperature group at Duke. He received his PhD in 1965 and remained at Duke for another year as a research associate.
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In the mid-1960s Cornell University was looking to expand its effort in low temperature physics. In 1966, Richardson was invited by the university’s Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics to join them and work with David Lee and John Reppy on very low temperature helium research.
The research team at Cornell was a highly knowledgeable one and the late 1960s and early 1970s marked a period of intense research and discoveries at the lab. In the early 1970s, Richardson and two of his colleagues—David Lee, a senior researcher, and Douglas D. Osheroff, a graduate student working with the team—collaborated to investigate the properties of the isotope helium-3.
In 1972, Richardson and Lee managed to cool a sample of helium-3 to within a few thousandths of a degree of absolute zero (−273° C) and were studying its internal pressure. Osheroff brought to their notice small fluctuations in the internal pressure which eventually led to the discovery of superfluidity in the isotope helium-3.
In 1990, he was made the director of the laboratory of atomic and solid-state physics at Cornell, a post he held until 1996. He served as Cornell's vice provost for research from 1998 to 2007, and from 2007 to 2009 as senior science adviser to the president and provost. He no longer operated a laboratory during his later years though he was the Floyd Newman Professor of Physics until his death.
Robert Coleman Richardson, along with his colleague at Cornell, David Lee, and then-graduate student Douglas Osheroff, were performing research in low temperature physics when they discovered superfluidity in helium-3. He was an expert in studying the quantum properties of liquids and solids at extremely low temperatures.
Awards & Achievements
In 1981, Richardson along with David M. Lee, and Douglas D. Osheroff received the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize, an annual award given by the American Physical Society "to recognize and encourage outstanding theoretical or experimental contributions to condensed matter physics."
Robert C. Richardson, David M. Lee, and Douglas D. Osheroff were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1996 "for their discovery of superfluidity in helium-3."
Personal Life & Legacy
While studying at Duke he met a fellow physics student, Betty McCarthy, who he married in 1962. The couple had two daughters: Jennifer and Pamela, who was born with a heart defect. The family suffered a major tragedy in 1994 when Pamela died of a heart failure.
Richardson died on February 19, 2013 from complications of a heart attack he suffered three weeks earlier.