Nobel Laureate Eric Cornell almost didn’t become a physicist. As a child in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he got interested in science early on, but he was curious about a lot of other things, too. He built model rockets and played around with electrical circuits, switches, and light bulbs. His father, Allin Cornell, a professor of civil engineering at MIT, fostered his love of science by teaching him scientific notation in the 4th grade and making sure his son got one of the early programmable calculators to play with. This introduction to computer programming fostered Cornell’s interest in math and science.
In middle school, Cornell joined the science club and helped build a miniature solar house with a solar panel on the roof connected to an aquarium pump circulator and a tank of water. The solar water heater was powered by a sun lamp shining on the roof.
Then, at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, Cornell took physical science and physics from an inspiring teacher named John Samp, who was also the swim coach. Cornell joined the swim team in addition to really enjoying his science classes with Mr. Samp. Cornell finished high school at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, a local magnet school for talented students, after he, his siblings, and his mother, Liz Greenberg, moved to California.
When Cornell went off to college at Stanford University, it was not clear to him that he would be a science major. He thought maybe he’d study engineering or science, but he was also looking into pre-med. However, it didn’t sound like fun to spend all that time in the hospital. And 23 years later when he spent months in the hospital for treatment of necrotizing fasciitis, he confirmed that it wasn’t any fun being in the hospital, though he concedes that it’s probably more fun to be a doctor than a patient.
By the time classes started at Stanford, Cornell wasn’t even taking physics. A chance conversation with two physics majors in his dorm 2–3 weeks into the semester piqued his curiosity. The two aspiring physicists insisted that Cornell immediately sign up for honors physics with Blas Cabrera, who was a really good professor. So, he went and signed up late for freshman physics. His dorm mates also told him how much fun it would be to work in Cabrera’s lab. The two ended up daring him to ask Cabrera for a job. So he did that, too. Cabrera had a job and gave it to Cornell. This job turned out to be a pivotal event in Cornell’s life. He much preferred working afternoons in the lab to taking classes. Consequently, he continued to take physics classes.
By the end of his sophomore year, Cornell was ready to try something new and different. He took a year off from college to work in Taiwan under the auspices of Stanford’s Volunteers in Asia program. The emphasis of the program was cultural exchange, and it offered Cornell a small salary and a position teaching conversational English in a YMCA. He immediately recognized it as a chance to study Chinese language and culture. He had been studying Chinese at Stanford and wondered if he might want to be a professor of something like literature or politics rather than physics.
Teaching English was pleasant and not very hard. Cornell had time to study Chinese and work on his own conversational Chinese by hanging out in his YMCA-owned apartment with four Chinese roommates. After some months, his conversational Chinese was pretty good, but the written characters proved more challenging. He gradually recognized that his talents probably lay elsewhere. Plus, he started to miss working in the laboratory.
Cornell decided he should return to doing science and “techie” stuff because it was clearly time to focus on one thing. He also realized that he could still pursue his interests in languages and his love of Shakespeare even if his work entailed physics. He returned to Stanford and finished his physics major, graduating with honors and distinction. He went straight to graduate school at MIT, where he worked with Dave Pritchard. Cornell had a lot of fun during the five years he spent in Cambridge working on his Ph.D. He rented a large apartment in Central Square and sublet the rooms, meeting a lot of interesting people in the process.
Graduate school consisted mostly of doing interesting experiments in the laboratory on trapped ions. Near the end of his time at MIT, he was invited to give a talk at the American Physical Society’s Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics, but attendance was sparse because, as he freely admits, his thesis research was not all that glamorous.
The excitement surrounding his research would soon change, however. Cornell flew out to Boulder to present a talk and speak to Dave Wineland at NIST about working for him as a postdoc. That effort didn’t pan out, but, as fate would have it, Carl Wieman’s wife Sarah Gilbert had attended Cornell’s talk. She suggested to Carl that he invite Cornell over to JILA to speak to him. Within a couple of weeks, Wieman had offered Cornell a job as his postdoc.
Wieman and Cornell would go on to work together at JILA for more than a decade. Their friendship took off almost immediately. They hit on the plan of trying to make the world’s first Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). The idea was that a combination of a little laser cooling and a little evaporative cooling might just be able to get a cloud of rubidium atoms cold enough to form a condensate.
Wieman already had a simple, elegant setup for doing laser cooling. For his part, Cornell was familiar with the BEC idea because MIT’s Dan Kleppner worked down the hall from the Pritchard lab where he’d done his thesis research. Kleppner’s group had just gotten evaporative cooling working before Cornell left for Colorado, and Cornell was familiar with this process.
After two years, Wieman and Cornell were both sure the project was going to work, even though it hadn’t proved to be as easy as both of them had thought when they started. So, Wieman helped convince JILA to hire Cornell so he could continue an independent BEC project. Wieman kept the machine Cornell had built in his lab, so Cornell had to build a new machine using the insights he’d gained from his postdoc work. JILA’s culture of collaboration made it easy for Cornell to continue to work with Wieman, something that is often less easy to do at other institutions. In his spare time, Cornell convinced Celeste Landry, whom he’d met at Stanford, to marry him just a few months before the BEC experiment succeeded in 1995.
Cornell recalls the excitement in his lab the day the researchers saw the BEC for the first time. The day before, they’d been messing around and tuning everything up. They finally even got the antigravity coil working, which was a crucial step to keep the atoms from falling so fast it was impossible to see a condensate. The next morning, they lowered the temperature of the experiment as low as they possibly could. And, it worked! The researchers spent some time convincing themselves that they were really seeing BEC. The Wieman group soon observed its own BEC. Six years later in 2001, Cornell and Wieman shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Wolfgang Ketterle of MIT for the experimental verification of BEC.
From the beginning, Cornell has loved working in JILA because of the talented, friendly people who worked there. After three months, he realized he knew more people at JILA than he’d met at MIT during his 5-year stint as a graduate student. When he returned to work in 2005 after a life-threatening illness, he felt welcomed back into “the family.”
Today, Cornell is one of the senior scientists at JILA. He serves on the executive committee of the Physics Frontier Center with W. Carl Lineberger, Deborah Jin, and Andreas Becker. He continues his research into ultracold atoms. His group recently collaborated with Jin to make a strongly interacting BEC (i.e., quantum liquid), which is now being thoroughly investigated. Cornell is also working with Jun Ye to determine whether the electron has an electric dipole moment, and, if it does exist, how small it is.
Outside of the lab, Cornell has followed through on his commitment to exploring literature and the arts. He is a voracious reader and enthusiastically declares his favorite author to be Thomas Pynchon. He likes musical theater and opera. He and his wife, Celeste Landry, have been regulars at the University of Colorado’s Shakespeare Festival for nearly two decades. The couple has two high school-aged daughters who have inherited their parents’ adventuresome spirits.
Cornell’s awards include NIST’s 1995 Samuel W. Stratton Award; the Newcomb-Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995-96; a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering, a Department of Commerce Gold Medal, the Fritz London Prize in Low Temperature Physics, and the Carl Zeiss Award in 1996, the American Physical Society’s I. I. Rabi Award, the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, and the King Faisal International Prize in Science in 1997, the Lorentz Medal from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics and the Optical Society of America’s R. W. Wood Prize in 1999, the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001, and the Ionnes Marcus Marci Medal for Molecular Spectroscopy in 2012. Cornell is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, and the Optical Society of America as well as a member of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.