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February 9, 2004

Physics alum does it his way

By Tim Stephens

Alumnus Larry Cornman has always resisted doing what was expected of him, a trait that seems to have served him well. Even the high school teacher who gave him a "D" in physics for refusing to do the assigned work said he thought Cornman would make a good scientist, and he was right.

Larry Cornman was honored by Scientific American magazine for his work on a warning system to help pilots avoid air turbulence.
Photo: Carlye Calvin

But Cornman followed a round-about path to a career in science, trusting his own intuition more than conventional wisdom.

"I like to do things my way," he says.

Cornman dropped out of graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1986 to take a job at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), also in Boulder.

The job turned out to be a perfect fit for him, and he never bothered to finish his Ph.D. (though he did get a master's degree in physics).

A project scientist at NCAR, Cornman uses physics and mathematics to solve practical problems in aviation. His work on a warning system to help pilots avoid air turbulence earned him an award from NASA, which sponsored the research, and a spot on the Scientific American 50, a list of the year's outstanding achievements in technology published in the magazine's December 2003 issue.

Cornman's interest in physics blossomed when he was an undergraduate at UCSC, but that wasn't until after he had pursued other interests. After high school, he was more interested in Zen Buddhism than science or college.

"Everyone expected me to go to college, so of course I had to do something different," he says.

He left the Los Angeles area, where he grew up, to live for awhile at the Tassajara monastery near Big Sur and at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County (both run by the San Francisco Zen Center). Later, he moved to the Santa Cruz area, where he spent several months living in Felton, working, and reading Russian literature.

Eventually, he ended up at a Buddhist commune in Mendocino County, where he lived for several years, working in the nearby town of Ukiah.

"I'm really glad I took the time to do those things, instead of going straight from high school to college," Cornman says. "Most kids go into college without knowing what they want to do, and they end up getting on a path without thinking it through. By the time I went to school, I was pretty clear on what I wanted to study and where I wanted to go."

Cornman rediscovered his interest in science when he began taking classes at Mendocino community college.

"The basic science classes really hooked me, and as I took more classes it was clear I had an aptitude for it," he says.

Considering a career in meteorology, Cornman decided that the schools with meteorology programs were too urban for him. He loved Santa Cruz, however, so he chose to study physics at UCSC, knowing that atmospheric science would require a background in physics. Cornman graduated with degrees in mathematics and physics in 1983.

"Going to UCSC for my undergraduate work was the best thing I could have done," he says. "The Physics and Math Departments were fairly small and they were very focused on undergraduate study, so the faculty had a lot of time for the students."

Cornman worked in the research labs of physics professors Frank (Bud) Bridges and Stanley Flatté. When Flatté spent a sabbatical at a research center in San Diego, Cornman joined him there for the summer, studying sound propagation in the ocean.

"That was a great experience and an amazing opportunity for an undergraduate," he says.

Once he got interested in physics, Cornman says he stopped thinking much about atmospheric science, so it's ironic that he ended up at NCAR. He still considers himself a physicist rather than an atmospheric scientist. He started working part-time at NCAR as a computer programmer to earn some extra money during graduate school. It turned into a full-time job, and he's been there ever since.

"Most of my work is very applied--it involves a lot of interesting physics, but it's also practical enough to keep it real. I really like that combination," Cornman says.

At NCAR, he started out studying wind shear, a condition in which wind speed or direction changes over a short distance. Low-altitude wind shear had been identified as the cause of several major airplane crashes in the 1980s. Cornman helped develop two of the wind-shear detection systems now installed at most airports.

In addition to the ground-based systems at airports, commercial airliners carry airborne radar systems that are also used to detect wind shear. Cornman saw the potential to extract additional information from these airborne systems, which led to the turbulence detection system recently honored in Scientific American. He worked with Robert Sharman and other NCAR researchers to develop the system.

"These aircraft have relatively sophisticated Doppler radar and processing equipment. We developed new methods of using the data from these radars to better detect turbulence," Cornman says.

After successful tests on NASA aircraft, the system has been offered to radar manufacturers, and testing on commercial airliners is planned for later this year.

"I do the research and then hand it off to the industry people for implementation in the real world," Cornman says.

An avid cyclist and competitive racer, Cornman enjoys living in Boulder. He recently returned to the Santa Cruz area to visit a good friend, Kam Zardouzian, who moved here last year from Boulder to coach the UCSC cycling team.

"That really brought back a lot of nostalgia. I have fond memories of Santa Cruz," Cornman says.

Zardouzian takes credit for getting Cornman back into competitive racing, which Cornman first took up when he lived in Santa Cruz. In addition to his twin passions of physics and cycling, Cornman has another characteristic that Zardouzian attributes to his time in Santa Cruz: a preference for casual clothing.

"Unless it's absolutely freezing outside, he's always wearing sandals, a raggedy old T-shirt, and shorts," Zardouzian says. "He's well known for showing up at meetings with NASA officials in flip-flops and shorts."

Cornman, however, maintains that he always wears nice T-shirts to important meetings.

As a leading expert on wind shear and air turbulence, Cornman is often interviewed by reporters and has appeared on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour (one of the rare occasions when he could be seen wearing a coat and tie). But Zardouzian says Cornman remains very down-to-earth.

"I don't think many of his close friends even know what Larry does or the magnitude of his accomplishments," he says.

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