This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage.
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page

Nobel Prize-winning alumnus returns

As he began his lecture here last Friday, Nobel Laureate David M. Lee paused to make a confession.

"When I came to UConn, I really didn't have much self-confidence with physics," Lee said. "In fact, I was just out of the Army and reading any physics book was quite a chore."

The statement sent a visible wave of surprise through the audience, many of whom were students. Perhaps they assumed that because he was a co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics, Lee must have been a natural scientific genius, a prodigy with a photographic memory and total recall. To discover that he had to work hard, very hard, just to get through the master's program, made a distinct impression.

This confession was just one of the pieces of wisdom Lee, MS '55, passed on to the more than 170 people who crammed into PB 38 to attend the inaugural Katzenstein Distinguished Lecture in Physics.

The lecture series was created by alumnus Henry S. Katzenstein, Ph.D. '54, a noted physicist in his own right who was also UConn's first graduate of the Ph.D. program in physics.

As he stood to greet the audience and help introduce Lee, whom he first met when both were graduate students at UConn, Katzenstein paused and looked around the packed lecture hall.

"What has happened to our little University?" he said.

After the chuckles had rippled through the audience, Katzenstein answered his own question with a wry smile.

"It has grown up. That's what has happened."

Lee, who is now a professor of physics at Cornell University, took over from there. He spent most of the lecture recalling the research and methods that led him and his collaborators to discover that the helium isotope helium-3 became a superfluid, flowing without resistance, at two one-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero (-273.15 degrees C).

Lee also took time during his presentation to share some of the insights he gathered during his years as a researcher and teacher. Many of the "important lessons," as he called them, pointed directly to his experience at UConn.

"Often a young researcher wants to do everything himself," Lee said. "But one of the real secrets in science is to be able to learn how to work with your colleagues. It was a lesson I learned when I was at UConn. I was surrounded by brilliant people, but they were also eager collaborators. It really made our research fun and accelerated the learning process for me."

Lee also recalled that whenever a topic in physics was brought up for discussion, Katzenstein invariably seemed to have been thoroughly versed on it.

"Henry not only knew the topic, but he could cite the specific journal article, the pages in the journal where the article appeared, and the authors' names," Lee said. "It was truly amazing and rather intimidating. But Henry was always so easy to approach and always eager to discuss new ideas."

Earlier in the day, Lee also met for about an hour with graduate students in the physics department.

"He really spoke fondly about his time here at UConn, all the good people he met and all the great experiences he had," said Gerald V. Dunne, an associate professor of physics. "It was very informal and the students just loved it."

William Stwalley, a professor of physics and department head, was very pleased with the entire day.

"Many members of the faculty and staff worked very hard to make the day a success," Stwalley said. Arrangements for the lecture were made by staff of the Office of University Events and Campus Relations."

Above all, Stwalley was happy to have such distinguished alumni on campus interacting with the students.

"It's important everyone realizes that the department of physics and the University have such impressive alumni," he said. "David and Henry are both outstanding scientists who have had exciting careers. It shows what high standards we have traditionally upheld at the University. And their achievements certainly provide inspiration for our current students."

David Pesci