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Cooper graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1947 and received a B.A. in 1951, M.A. in 1953, and Ph.D. in 1954 from Columbia University. He spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study and taught at the University of Illinois and Ohio State University before coming to Brown University in 1958. He is the Thomas J. Watson, Sr. Professor of Science at Brown, and Director of the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems.

A fellow of the American Physical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, associate, Neurosciences Research Program, he was an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow from 1959 to 1966 and a Guggenheim Fellow in 1965-66. He has carried out research at various institutions including the Institute for Advanced Study, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.

In addition to his Nobel Prize, Cooper has received the Comstock Prize (with Dr. Schrieffer) of the National Academy of Sciences; the Award of Excellence, Graduate Faculties Alumni of Columbia University and Descartes Medal, Academie de Paris, Université René Descartes and the John Jay Award of Columbia College. He also has been awarded seven honorary doctorates.

He is the author of an unconventional liberal-arts physics textbook, originally An Introduction to the Meaning and Structure of Physics (Harper and Row, 1968) and still in print in a somewhat condensed form as Physics: Structure and Meaning (Lebanon: New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1992).

Many printed materials, including the Nobel Prize website, have referred to Cooper as “Leon Neil Cooper”. However, the middle initial N does not stand for Neil, or for any other name. The correct form of the name is, thus, “Leon N Cooper”, with no abbreviation dots. According to his family, the "N" does indeed stand for a name, that name being Nathan.

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