August 6, 2017

A (Brief) History of Science at Cornell

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1938: Prof. Hans Bethe, physics, describes the nuclear reactions that keep the sun — and heavier stars — shining. Bethe proposes two processes that lead to the fusion of hydrogen and helium nuclei, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his work on the topic.

Bethe also participated in the preliminary design meetings for the atom bomb in 1942. He was responsible for calculating the efficiency of the uranium to be used in the bomb as well as its explosive yield. Though he also participated in the development of the hydrogen bomb, he hoped to prove that creating it would be impossible and was a vocal supporter of nuclear disarmament.

1958: Prof. Freeman Dyson, physics, helps design a class of small nuclear reactors known as TRIGA — Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics. The commission of the first TRIGA prototype was declared a nuclear landmark by the American Nuclear Society because it was designed to be used without a containment building, making it easily accessible for use in research. The core of the reactor uses a uranium compound whose reactivity decreases as temperature increases, ruling out meltdowns seen in larger, conventional plants.

1968: The Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory is established. 800 feet in diameter, the synchrotron accelerates electrons using 192 magnets placed along its diameter. This electron beam is then diverted onto a target, causing it to abruptly halt and produce gamma rays that may be used to study the nature of the preceding collision or properties of other materials. The synchrotron is capable of reaching energies of 10 billion electron volts, making it the most powerful such facility in the world.

The facility has since been upgraded to include a chain of accelerators that smash opposing beams into each other, allowing researchers to refine their study of subatomic particles. The collision also releases X-rays, which have been used for a variety of purposes, from refining our understanding of the structure of the common cold virus to understanding how jet plane wings degrade at an atomic level.

1971: Prof. David Lee, physics, uncovers the superfluid properties of Helium-3, a naturally occurring form of helium. A fluid with these properties can flow without any friction; Helium-3 demonstrates this property at temperatures very close to absolute zero (- 459.67 F). Lee’s work helped spark new research into quantum mechanics and superconductors, whose electrons seem to flow like superfluids. Lee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1996 for his work.

1977: The Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility is established. The facility is now home to over 90 advanced tools that researchers from all over the world use to manipulate and construct nanostructures. The lab has been used to conduct research in a wide variety of fields; from creating low-cost diagnostic devices for medical applications to graphene transistors.

In 1997, a Cornell Student used equipment at the lab to etch a guitar the size of a red blood cell onto a silicon chip.


1890: The Babcock test, used to determine the fat content of milk, is developed by Stephen Babcock M.S. `75. This simple and low cost test was considered revolutionary because it was easily deployed all over the country, improving the quality of milk that consumers received and duly rewarding farmers who did not dilute their milk.

1926: Prof. James Sumner, biochemistry, becomes the first to demonstrate that an enzyme is a protein. In the process, he also becomes the first to isolate and crystallize an enzyme. Sumner worked with the enzyme urease which is responsible for breaking down urea, a byproduct of metabolism. Such a discovery was revolutionary because most scientists at the time were skeptical (see below) that enzymes could be isolated without the discovery of a new form of purification. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work 20 years later.

1940s: Prof. Peter Debye, chemistry, develops light scattering techniques to calculate the weight of long-chained molecules we encounter everyday, from plastics to proteins. Earlier, he was responsible for fundamental work on the relationship between energy provided to an object and its subsequent rise in temperature as well as the distribution of electrical charges in a molecule. Debye had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1936 for his work on molecular structures.

1958: Super Glue, marketed as the adhesive Eastman #910, is developed by Harry Coover M.S. ’43 Ph.D ’44. Its main ingredient, cyanoacrylate, was initially rejected for use in clear plastic gun sights and heat-resistant polymers for being too sticky before Coover realized its potential as an adhesive. Coover also promoted its use as a tissue adhesive and it was first used during the Vietnam War to temporarily seal internal wounds.


1943: Prof. Georgios Papanikolaou, anatomy, is the first to report that uterine cancer can be detected using a vaginal smear. In his book, he describes the method used to prepare a cervical or vaginal smear and demonstrates that these smears can be correctly classified as normal, precancerous or cancerous. Thus, he establishes the simple technique used to diagnose and prevent cervical cancer. In his honor, the test is called the Pap smear.

1964: Prof. Robert Holley, biochemistry, and team decode the structure of tRNA, also known as Transfer Ribonucleic Acid, a molecule that plays an integral role in the synthesis of proteins by cells. Holley’s method proved to be extremely effective as scientists soon used it to understand the structure of other RNA and DNA structures in viruses, bacteria and plants. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 for his work on the topic.

1974: Dr. Henry Heimlich B.A. ’41 M.D. ’43 describes the Heimlich maneuver, used to treat choking, in an informal article entitled “Pop Goes The Cafe Coronary.” After trying multiple maneuvers on dogs eating pieces of meat, Heimlich discovered that pressing on the animal’s diaphragm caused the meat to immediately pop out. Rescuers are still taught to use the technique in case other treatment methods fail, though Heimlich always claimed that it was easy enough for the general public to be trained in its use.

1983: Nelson Allen, Prof. Edward Wolf, electrical engineering, and Prof. John Sanford, horticultural sciences, invent the biolistic particle delivery system, popularly known as the ‘gene gun’. The gun fires extremely small DNA-coated heavy metal particles into plant cells in an effort to force them to incorporate the foreign genetic material. Their initial design used a Crosman air pistol that fired DNA coated tungsten particles at onions. The invention had enormous implications for, among other fields, creating crops that were more resistant to herbicides and pathogens.

1993: Prof. Steven Tanksley, plant breeding and genetics, and team become the first to clone a gene responsible for disease resistance in a crop: the tomato. The technique used, map-based cloning, was originally developed for the Human Genome Project. The gene allows tomatoes to develop resistance to a strain of bacteria that causes the plant’s leaves to slowly fall off, dramatically reducing its yield.

Computer Science

1957: Frank Rosenblatt A.B.’50 Ph.D.’56  invents the Perceptron, a crucial stepping stone to neural networks, which are computational models loosely based on the functioning of the human brain’s nerve network. The Mark I Perceptron featured 400 photocells connected to ‘neurons’ to enable image recognition. Today, applications of neural networks in machine learning have exploded onto the commercial scene, from recommending movies to piloting aircraft.

1962: Prof. Richard Conway Ph.D ’58 and Prof. Robert Walker, mathematics, develop the CORnell Compiler to provide a computer language that is more conducive to teaching. As opposed to other languages at the time, CORC used English statements. Students were not required to prepare their own input but instead wrote their programs on special coding sheets, which were then transformed into input punch cards by specially trained operators. Programs submitted by 5 p.m were compiled and run overnight so that students could see their results in the morning. CORC was later followed up by the Cornell University Programming Language.

1967: In order to simplify administrative tasks, Cornell’s Ithaca campus gets its first computer. As opposed to handling a single process at a time which were the norm of most machines at the time, the computer could handle several and thus, access to the device was provided at multiple terminals across the university.

1971: Prof. Gerard Salton, computer science, and team develop the SMART Information Retrieval System. Known as the father of information retrieval, Salton introduces the fundamentals concepts used to represent text documents as vectors as well as finding the similarities between a document and query for information filtering and retrieval. The research lays the foundation for modern search engines. In 1983, the Gerard Salton Award is established to honor those who have contributed to research in the field.

1984: The Cornell Theory Center, now known as the Cornell University Center for Advanced Computing, is established. The center is one of the five original sites for supercomputers in the United States, created to provide high-computing resources for research in the country. The facility is now used by scientists and researchers from across departments and the world working  on everything from U.S. census data to the process of protein folding.


1882: Sometime between 1876 and 1882, a wooden observatory is established on the Arts Quad, at what is now the northern end of Goldwin Smith Hall. The observatory allowed students to observe stars, with help from the master clock owned by the Department of Physics.

The observatory was later moved to the eastern end of what is now Day Hall in 1893 before being demolished prior to the construction of the A. C. Barnes Observatory in 1902.

1917: Located to the North of Beebe Lake, Fuertes Observatory was constructed in Fall 1917. Five years later, a 12-inch telescope replaced the existing 5-inch telescope present at the site and was dedicated as the “Irving Porter Church Memorial Telescope.” The telescope is in use to this day.

1960s: Prof. Carl Sagan, astronomy, concludes that Venus’s surface temperature is 500OC, based on radio emissions from the planet. At his Harvard lab, Sagan synthesizes Adenosine Triphosphate, a major source of energy in cells, by shining ultraviolet light onto a solution of compounds similar to that probably found in Earth’s oceans during its early formation. In doing so, he demonstrates that amino acids can form from basic chemicals using radiation, a process by which life could develop on other planets.

In 1972, Sagan assembles a plaque placed on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft showing the human form as well as symbols that extraterrestrials could potentially use to find Earth. Five years later, Sagan also assembles the golden record placed on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft that contain sounds and images to portray the life and culture of Earth to any extraterrestrials.

2003:  Led by Prof. Jim Houck, astronomy, a team at Cornell designs the Infrared Spectrograph placed on the Spitzer telescope. The spectrograph consists of four different instruments which are responsible for capturing the infrared radiation from distant objects and giving us a better understanding of the materials that make up planets, stars and galaxies light years away. Researchers recently used these instruments to identify the presence of water on an exoplanet.

2004: NASA’s Cassini-Huygens probe enters orbit around Saturn, with numerous Cornell astronomers playing crucial roles in its operation. Among others, Prof. Joseph Burns, theoretical and applied mechanics, is on Cassini’s imaging team which uses cameras capable of taking pictures in visible, near-infrared and near-ultraviolet light to analyze the structure of the planet and it’s moons. Meanwhile, Prof. Peter Gierasch, astronomy, is on the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer team which determines the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere and rings. Among other discoveries, these teams were responsible for confirming the presence of large, lake-shaped basins on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.


1910: Students formed the Cornell Soaring Club and built a fully operation glider that competed with other Ivy Universities.

  • George Anagnost, Peoria AZ

    This is a helpful summary of Cornell’s contribution to science and scientific research. Another important researcher was Theobald Smith who graduated from Cornell in about 1881. He became a first-rate researcher and in 1889 was able to isolate babesia bigemina as the parasite that caused Texas Fever, a disease that took a great toll on the cattle industry.

  • Bob Platt

    Because it involved my age cohorts, a high-point was when James L. Elliot, Edward W. Dunham, and Jessica Mink discovered the rings around the planet Uranus. I went through grade school, high school and college believing that we knew everything about the solar system. It was great to learn that we could discover something as simple as planetary rings because Cornellians figured out a clever way to detect them.

    I also think that the work of Tom Gold and the radio telescope at Arecebo should be included in the list.

    In chemistry, Vincent du Vigneaud deserved his Noble Prize for his synthesis of oxytocin. Roald Hoffmann deserved his Nobel Prize for his work on molecular orbital symmetry. Paul Flory’s work on polymers was outstanding and also served his Nobel Prize.

    Every time I watch CSI on TV, I think of Fred McLafferty and his pioneering work in mass spectroscopy. He was also the first to use computerized artifiicial intelligence to automatically identify compounds from their mass spec data.

    Finally, any history of science at Cornell should include our atom smashers including our CHESS. We have been the leader in this field from the end of World War II through the 1980’s.