Lenfest 2015 Winner: Brian Cole

Jessica Guenzel
March 08, 2015

Physics professor Brian Cole is renowned for Accelerated Physics, his two-semester course for first-year students that covers the usual introductory physics sequence, plus relativity, waves and introductory quantum mechanics. “An honors physics course on steroids,” he calls it.

Past students have called it the most difficult and the most valuable class they have taken at Columbia. It is designed for students with a strong background in physics and math.

“I am completely hooked on teaching the course because of the quality of the students and the rapport I develop with them as we struggle through the material together,” says Cole, an eminent scholar in the field of experimental heavy-ion physics. “I have learned that Columbia students are capable of much more than they know and that if challenged, they will respond in a remarkable way — especially when encouraged and treated with respect.”

In 2011, Bwog, the student-run campus news site and blog, put his class “From Quarks to the Cosmos” on its list of Classes to Take Before You Die/I Mean Graduate. Students have described him as “fantastic,” “amazing,” “awesome,” “pure gold” and “extremely nice”

Cole joined the Columbia faculty in 1994 with a Ph.D. and a bachelor’s degree from M.I.T. He has a strong interest in physics at the boundary of particle and nuclear physics and his current research focuses on “quark gluon plasma,” a unique form of matter that existed in the earliest microseconds of the universe. He conducts experiments at the Brookhaven National Laboratory Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider on Long Island and at the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

Cole is among 19 Columbia physicists who were involved in the research that confirmed the existence of the elusive subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson, the essential part of a nearly 50-year-old theory that explains why objects have mass. He has written hundreds of published articles that have generated thousands of citations.

He was thesis adviser to a recent winner of the ATLAS Thesis Award, a competition open to hundreds of graduate students from around the world. The citation for his Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award notes that he helps students find research positions, and many former students today teach at leading institutions while continuing research he inspired.

“I was originally inspired to become a physicist because I wanted to understand how our universe works and contribute that understanding through research,” Cole says. “But teaching and seeing my students become similarly inspired has been both incredibly rewarding and an essential part of my life as physics professor.”