Robert C. Richardson

Born: 26 June 1937, Washington, DC

Education: Virginia Polytechnic University; Ph.D. Duke University, (1966)
Robert C. Richardson, shown in a 1989 photo inspecting low-temperature apparatus which cools to temperatures close to absolute zero. (source)

Richardson's research focus is low-temperature physics, especially the properties of liquids and solids at sub-millikelvin temperatures: low temperature, properties of liquid 3He and 4He, superfluid flow in bulk and films, NMR of 3He. NMR, NQR at ultra low temperatures.

Richardson, with Lee and Osheroff,  were co-workers who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics for their accomplishments in superfluidity. Superfluid helium exists below 2.19K when the electrons in the helium atoms are in their lowest possible quantum state.

This means that helium exhibits bizarre properties at very low temperatures.

For comparison, consider how water vapour cools and condenses into water, then water can be cooled further into its form as ice. Each of these changes mark a "phase transition." A holy grail of physics was reached when it was made possible to cool helium to almost absolute zero. The temperature of zero kelvin ( -273 degrees Celcius) is the lowest possible. As helium is reduced in temperature toward almost absolute zero, a strange phase transition occurs, and the helium takes on the form of a superfluid. The atoms had until that point had moved with random speeds and directions. But as a superfluid, the atoms then move in a co-ordinated manner!

Superfluids have lost internal friction to the degree that they can overflow up and over the sides of a container, or flow through very tiny holes. Superfluids are also called quantum liquids because they can only be described using the rules of quantum physics.

This century, scientists have developed what is called quantum physics to explain extraordinary behavior seen at the atomic level that would never be witnessed in the daily world.

The ground-breaking research of Richardson and his colleagues brings a new understanding to the nature of matter at the atomic level. Surprisingly, this research has made it possible pursue more knowledge of the nature of matter at the size of galaxies! The research has enabled experiments to test aspects of the galaxy formation theory of  "cosmic strings" proposed by others.

Robert C. Richardson is the Floyd R. Newman Professor of Physics and director of the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics at Cornell University. Richardson joined the Cornell Department of Physics in 1966 as a research associate. He was named assistant professor of physics in 1968, associate professor in the same field in 1972 and a full professor in 1975. Since 1987 he has served as the Newman Professor and assumed the duties of director of the solid state physics lab in 1990.

The current work being carried out by the  Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics group is studying a variety of problems in condensed matter at very low temperatures. The recent emphasis of the work has been on the properties of "quantum fluids and solids" (liquid and solid helium) and on metals and insulators in small dimensions at extremely low temperatures. Projects will include experiments performed in the new Microkelvin Laboratory in which the ground state properties of matter are investigated. Experimental techniques include NMR, various low frequency resonance and bridge methods, and the use of superconducting devices.


The Science Behind the Prize

Cornell Science News,  October 1996, reporting the Nobel Prize award for Physics to three Cornell researchers.

Autobiography: Robert C. Richardson from the Nobel Foundation site.

Press Release from the Nobel Foundation gives an explanation of this breakthrough in low-temperature physics.

A Quicktime excerpt from: A World Without Disorder: Absolute Zero Temperature showing Professor Richardson drinking a toast with liquid nitrogen. (4.7M) or a shorter version (1.4M). This is a low temperature physicist's parlor trick akin to fire breathing. Don't try this at home kids!

References for this page: Cornell Science News, October 1996; Cornell University homepage of Robert C Richardson; and The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 10 October 1996.