Physicist of the Year

David Lee, 88, said Wednesday that he felt fortunate to have worked with colleagues and graduate students he respected and admired. He talked about the trial-and-error nature of science, and he likened physics to a sport.

A Texas A&M professor and Nobel Prize winner was recently named the 2019 Physicist of the Year by the Top 100 Registry. Distinguished professor of physics and astronomy David Lee’s colleagues held a two-day symposium in his honor that began Thursday morning and continues all day today. 

“It is wonderful to be here for David. He’s one of our geniuses,” A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said of Lee at the outset of the Quantum Materials Science Symposium, which participants referred to as the Lee Fest. Lee was named the top physicist in the United States this year by Top 100 Registry, which is printed quarterly and features accomplished individuals. In 1996, Lee — then a professor at Cornell University — shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with two colleagues for their joint 1972 discovery of superfluid helium-3. 

Lee came to Texas A&M in 2009 after a 50-year career at Cornell. 

Lee, 88, said Wednesday that he felt fortunate to have worked with colleagues and graduate students he respected and admired. He talked about the trial-and-error nature of science, and he likened physics to a sport.

“I really consider myself more of a journeyman physicist who got lucky, and I think that’s the kind of role model that one would like,” Lee said. “Anybody can do it — they just have to be in the right place at the right time with the right discovery, and I was lucky to have great graduate students, great colleagues and very good friends. I attribute my success to them.” 

Texas A&M distinguished professor of science Marlan O. Scully said Wednesday that he has known of Lee by reputation for decades — both men studied at Yale, though at different times — and expressed gratitude at the opportunity to work alongside him over the past 10 years. 

“I knew him very well long before he won the Nobel Prize and became David Lee,” Scully said with a laugh. “We are extremely pleased to have him here at Texas A&M because he’s such an unusual guy — not only is he an outstanding, Nobel-winning physicist, but he is also a great teacher and a great model and a great friend.” 

At the symposium’s first session, Lee talked attendees through the findings that earned him the shared Nobel Prize. While in low-temperature laboratory at Cornell in the early 1970s, the three discovered, using a hand-built apparatus, that the helium isotope, helium-3, can be made “superfluid” — unaffected by friction — at a temperature only about two thousandths of a degree above absolute zero. As a result of their breakthrough discovery, superfluid He-3 is now one of the richest systems in condensed matter physics. 

Scully said that Lee and his Cornell colleagues also performed one of the first physics magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) experiments involving magnetic field gradients on the He-3 sample. Scully noted that Lee came to him and some colleagues recently with a question about black holes, which turned into a published paper on the questions raised and a collaboration with William G. Unruh, an A&M Hagler Institute Fellow and black hole expert.

“I’m very grateful to the people in Texas for bringing me down here. It’s been a wonderful time,” Lee said. “My colleagues here at Texas A&M are wonderful and are high-level scientists. It’s been a pleasure to interact with all the people here, many of whom are in fields somewhat different from my own.”

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