The American condensed-matter physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Richardson has died at the age of 75 from complications related to a heart attack. Based at Cornell University since 1968, Richardson shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physics with his former PhD student Douglas Osheroff and Cornell's David Lee. The three researchers were cited for their discovery that helium-3 becomes a superfluid at very low temperatures.

Being fermions, helium-3 atoms ought not to be able to condense into a superfluid, but some physicists had speculated that the atoms could form bosonic pairs similar to the Cooper pairs found in superconductors. In a famous series of experiments in 1971, Richardson and colleagues confirmed that these pairs formed a superfluid at temperatures below about 2.5 mK.

"Glorious time" at Duke

Richardson was born on 26 June 1937 in Washington, DC and did BSc and MSc degrees at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He received a PhD in physics in 1966 from Duke University, where he worked under Horst Meyer on nuclear magnetic resonance of solid helium-3. Richardson later recalled the "glorious time" he spent at the university.

After a further year at Duke, in 1966 Richardson moved to Cornell, where he spent the rest of his career focusing on low-temperature physics, working initially with Lee and Dave Reppy and later becoming director of Cornell's Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics. He also served as the university's first vice-provost for research from 1998 to 2003 and had a spell as director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science.

Landmark report

In 2005 Richardson helped write the landmark National Academy of Sciences report entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. It identified shortcomings in the US's approach to developing science and technology, and recommended changes to how research and higher education are funded and how science and technology are taught in US schools.