From Biology to Physics and Back Again: Leon Cooper

A 1947 Westinghouse finalist chose physics as a career, shared a Nobel for work on superconductivity, then turned to neuroscience
westinghouse, leon cooper, physics, neuroscience, nobel prize

Courtesy Leon Cooper


HIS FINALIST PROJECT: Growing penicillin-resistant bacteria

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Leon Cooper always loved hands-on science. As a child in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he set up labs in basements and closets of his various homes in New York City, trying the patience of his father. Cooper mixed chemicals for developing photos, bought what he could at chemical supply stores—which actually sold concentrated acids and the like to children in those days—and, like many little boys, showed an affinity for things that went "boom." He produced one small explosion with an enhanced gunpowder mixture—"My ears still ring occasionally," he says today—and, with a friend, narrowly missed making what he later figured out would have been TNT. "I guess I always liked fooling around," Cooper says. "It's amazing we didn't kill each other."

His curiosity led him to The Bronx High School of Science in New York City, where he ran experiments in the labs after school most days until the teachers turned off the lights. One experiment involved the new miracle drug, penicillin. He was curious about variations in bacteria and how resistance develops, and so he tried to grow bacteria in increasingly dilute solutions of penicillin. Some survived. He grew colonies of these resistant bacteria. "It was just an idea I had," he says, though he didn’t have the resources and equipment to pursue the subject more. These days we know that the young Cooper was onto something in terms of how resistance develops: When people fail to finish courses of antibiotics, resistant bacteria can flourish. Cooper entered his results in the 1947 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.

THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: Cooper is confident that his award was the reason he—a city kid without much money—was admitted to Columbia University. There, he weighed whether to pursue his interest in biology or study physics, which also fascinated him. "I just wanted to work on deep and important problems," he says. "It was a hard choice. I remember my thinking at the time was that I could always learn biology, but if I didn't really study physics, I'd never understand it."

He earned his PhD from Columbia in 1954 and joined the faculty of Brown University in 1958 (after a few other short stints). During this time—Cooper was still in his 20s—he, John Bardeen and John Schrieffer jointly developed the theory of superconductivity, which explains how current can flow completely without resistance. The three later shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics. "What Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer did was one of the major scientific discoveries of the last century," says Douglas Scalapino, a University of California, Santa Barbara, physicist who works in superconductivity. "Their work had far-reaching consequences for all of physics: for high-energy physics, for nuclear physics, for astrophysics."

WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: Around the time he won the Nobel, Cooper had a realization. He could become a superguru of superconductivity, writing increasingly technical papers. But that "is not the kind of thing that pleases me so much." So he decided to transition back into biology—specifically into brain research. Why brain research? "I wandered into it," he says, though he points out that brain research offers the kind of unmapped frontiers and big questions that physics did in the mid–20th century. Now as the director of the Brown University Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Cooper studies brain networks and the biological basis of memory. It's an interdisciplinary program that allows Cooper to do some work in physics and even philosophy. This fall, for example, he'll be teaching a physics and philosophy course called "From Flat Earth to Quantum Uncertainty".

One of the philosophical concepts that fascinates Cooper is that even as the theoretical basis of physics has shifted in relatively recent times from classical to quantum, structural relationships, such as the orbits of planets, remain unchanged. Those orbits don't particularly care about new theories, just the data—which is why, for all he has advanced theory, Cooper still likes working in the lab. "Without data, theory spins its wheels among too many possibilities," he says.

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