And while he did reach the pinnacle of his field winning a share of the Nobel Prize for his role in the discovery of fifth state of matter, Cornell's path took a detour along the way.
Cornell's parents were finishing their post-graduate education at Stanford University when he was born, and shortly after the family moved to Cambridge where his father took a job teaching civil engineering at MIT. Cornell's mother taught him to read at an early age, and he devoured books on a wide range of subjects. In elementary school, Cornell said he would often surreptitiously read books of his own during class if he found the material more interesting than the subject being taught.
Cornell returned to the West Coast for college where he raced through the first two years of the physics curriculum at Stanford. Although his studies were going well, he began to question whether he was in control of his future. So he combined his love of politics and the Chinese language and spent a year in Taiwan and mainland China teaching conversational English. While he enjoyed the work, he realized he lacked the natural aptitude it takes to master the several thousand characters that comprise the Chinese alphabet, so he resumed his original career track with a sense of purpose.
For graduate school, Cornell returned to Cambridge where he focused on atomic research, spending two years mastering the finer points of taking accurate measurements of single ions. He still had a hole in his professional resume that needed filling as he turned his attention to his postdoctoral career. Most experiments in atomic physics involve the use of a laser, and Cornell had not yet learned to use such technology. He set about to change that fact when he took a position at the university of Colorado, where he quickly learned how to use the increasingly popular research tool.
Working with renowned physicist Carl Wieman, Cornell flourished as the two shared very similar scientific philosophies. Over the next few years, Cornell and Wieman made steady progress, culminating on a memorable June day in 1995 when they confirmed discovery of the fifth phase of matter. At the time the known phases were gas, liquid, solid and plasma. Building on a theory advanced by Albert Einstein in 1925, Cornell and his partners were able to bring the temperature of atoms to a level only a fraction of a degree higher than absolute zero, or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius. They found that the wave functions of the atoms overlapped and behaved in the same manner, creating a super atom — the elusive fifth phase of matter — known as Bose-Einstein condensate. Cornell had this take on the new branch of study in atomic physics, "If you get atoms cold enough, they start less and less to act like little billiard balls and more like waves."
In the years since the groundbreaking discovery, Cornell has continued his research with the Bose-Einstein condensate, including studies of spin waves in ultra-cold atoms. He was back in the headlines in 2004 when he became one of the highest profile victims of necrotizing fascitis, sometimes referred to as the "flesh-eating disease." The right-handed Cornell had his left arm and shoulder amputated in a successful attempt to stop the spread of the infection, and he was able to return to work within six months.