Physics Nobel laureate inspires students

As a child, David Lee GRD ’59 brought a model railroad track into hiskitchen, stuck it into an electric socket andnearly electrocuted himself. Unbeknownst to the world, a Nobel laureate in physics was in the making.

Lee delivered the Alan Tetelman Lecture in the Yale Center for British ArtLecture Hall on Thursday for a Jonathan Edwards College’s Masters Tea. Discussing the project that won him the Nobel Prize in 1996, Lee focused on making his intricate work on the superfluidity of helium-3 comprehensible to the 150 students and faculty in the crowd. Students said they were surprised that although Lee had spent many years researching helium-3, in the end it was chance that brought him to hiswinning project.

“This was really one of those beautiful, accidental discoveries,” Lee said. “A lot of people have said that I was very lucky.”

A native of New York, Lee was raised by an electrical engineer and a teacher, both of whom he credits for allowing him to fully indulge his curiosity from a young age.

Lee said he was interested in science since his near electrocution. According to the Nobel Prize website, Lee developed an interest in meteorology during his teenage years, which began the scientist’s interest in physics. After attending Harvard University for an undergraduate degree in physics, Lee went to the University of Connecticut to learn about experimental physics, the website said. Years later, with a Yale doctorate under his belt, Lee joined the Cornell faculty, where, in the 1970s, hebegan his Nobel Prize winning research on helium-3, an isotope of the noble gas.

Working off an existing technique for cooling helium, Lee and two of his colleagues cooled the solid helium milli-degree by milli-degree in order to inch their way towards absolute zero, the temperature at which all atomic movement ceases.

Using these meticulous measurements, Lee said he and his colleagues unintentionally discovered “phase transitions”within helium-3.

The phase transitions brought helium-3 to a phase that had yet to be discovered in this particular isotope, called the superfluid phase.Superfluidity occurs when the distinction between one particle starts and the next becomes unclear, Lee said. This discovery was important, he said, because it allowed scientists to directly study systems in quantum physics that are large enough to see — an ability they had never had before.

During the lecture, Lee showed the audience pictures he had taken of some follow-up experiments. The images showed a vessel that contained superfluid helium. A thin film of helium had crept up the side of the vessel and over the edge, showing that the helium-3 superfluid flows without friction.

Four students in the adult-dominated crowd said they were inspired, awestruck and thankful to have heard Lee speak.

“I found it great that he didn’t feel so attached to the Nobel prize,” Eva Guadamillas ’14 said. “He just loves day-to-day life as a physicist.”

Christina Brasco ’14 and Geoffrey Litt ’14 both said they found the pure science to be surprisingly accessible to the general audience.

Lee said this was one of his main aims, and during the talk, he tried to pass on his own passion for science to the audience.

“It’s like you meet your wife, and suddenly you say you love her,”Lee said. “The more you know, the more you find. Discovery is very exciting.”

Lee is a physics professor at Texas A&M University.

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