The 150 students in Lincoln High School’s small theater Friday buzzed with excitement.
A few slyly pointed to a man standing off to the side of the stage. I think that’s him, they said.
It was. That was the guy who discovered superfluidity in helium-3.
Many of the students had no idea what that meant, but they did know that Douglas Osheroff won the 1996 Nobel Prize in physics for that scientific achievement.
And that, they said, was cool.
“I feel, like, so astounded,” said senior Devan Simmons, 17, a student in the San Francisco school’s environmental science program.
“Someone who made a discovery, at my school — I think it’s pretty impressive.”
To be clear, Osheroff doesn’t feel “cool,” although he noted that he is an expert on cold stuff, given his career as a low-temperature physicist.
The Stanford University professor did go to high school with the father of the deceased Nirvana singer, Kurt Cobain, a biographical factoid he offered up as street cred.
Osheroff’s visit was part of the non-profit Nobel Laureates School Visits program, which offers students the chance to meet and interact with a Nobel Prize winner and perhaps see the potential for scientific greatness in themselves.
The 68-year-old Osheroff was a doctoral student at Cornell University when he made his discovery in 1971. He remembers the night well.
“Have discovered the BCS transition of liquid helium-3 tonight,” he wrote in his journal at 2:30 a.m.
“I didn’t realize it would change my life,” he said.
In a nutshell, the discovery offered insight into how the world works by bringing helium-3 as close to absolute zero as possible. Helium-3, he explained, doesn’t exist naturally, but is the byproduct of the decay of tritium — the stuff that makes hydrogen bombs go off.
When helium-3 gets super cold, the nucleus fermions vibrate and swap places, he said, adding something about superconducting magnets and level of atmospheric pressure it took to get the element that cold.
But the superfluidity he saw was beautiful.
“It’s an elegant kind of order that results,” he said. “It’s one of nature’s classrooms.”
Unlike UC Berkeley Nobelists do, he didn’t get a parking space at Stanford for the achievement, he said with a shake of his head. Still, he was a scientific celebrity at Lincoln.
“It’s a phenomenal role model for our students,” said George Cachianes, the school’s biotech teacher. “They are salivating at this opportunity.”
Student Saba Gebrezghi, 17, thought a Nobel winner would look, well, more staid rather than the slightly stooped Osheroff. In his casual tan sweater, he looked more like someone’s kind grandfather than one of the greatest minds of his generation.
“He just seems so regular,” she said. “You would think his back would be held straight, with a tie. He’s actually pretty chill.”
Chill or not, students knew they were in the presence of someone famous.
But not the twerking Miley Cyrus kind of famous, Devan said.
“It’s not rock star, pop star type of fame,” she said. “I would say it’s honorable.”
It was the kind of famous she’d like to be someday.
“I’m never going to be Miley Cyrus,” she said. “I feel like maybe someday I could do something important, too.”
Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org