The university, where Richardson had been a physics professor since 1968, said he died Thursday in Ithaca, N.Y., of complications of a heart attack suffered three weeks ago.
Richardson and two Cornell colleagues conducted experiments in 1971 to explore the properties of atoms at a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.
In cooling helium to within a few thousandths of a degree of absolute zero they created what physicists call a superfluid -- a liquid that flows without friction.
"I quickly tell people it has no practical applications," Douglas D. Osheroff, who as a Cornell graduate student was one of the three experimenters, said in an interview with the New York Times.
However, it allowed scientists to study a variety of scientific problems, including basic quantum interactions at the atomic level, and the experiment won Richardson, Osheroff and David M. Lee the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Richardson was born June 26, 1937, in Washington, attended Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., and earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in physics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He went to Cornell in 1966 as a postdoctoral researcher and was promoted to assistant professor two years later.
He served as Cornell's first vice provost for research from 1998 to 2003 and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.