Remembering Leon Lederman: Scientist, Fermilab leader, education advocate
Nobel Prize winner. Political advocate for science education who proposed what would become Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The guy who gave an enduring nickname to the Higgs boson.
Leon Lederman was that, and more.
The former director of Fermilab in Batavia died Oct. 3, at age 96, in Rexburg, Idaho.
Former Fermilab Director John Peoples put it this way, in a news release from the laboratory: "Leon gave U.S. and world physicists a step up, a unique facility, a very high-energy collider, and his successors keep working for these things.
"Leon made that happen. He set things in motion."
Lederman's passion for learning was instilled by his father, a Russian Jewish immigrant to New York City who worked as a launderer.
Lederman obtained a bachelor's degree in chemistry from City College of New York, then served three years in the Army during World War II. He received a doctorate in particle physics in 1951 from Columbia University. He also joined the Columbia physics department in constructing a synchrotron at Nevis Lab, and became director, from 1961 to 1978.
While there, Lederman published a call for a "truly national accelerator laboratory." At the time, the nation's accelerator laboratories were in New York and California, and some scientists felt they were too parochial. Lederman thought a national lab would attract scientists not only from around the country but around the world.
Construction began in 1968. In 1979, with Lederman now director of the lab, construction of the legendary Tevatron accelerator began. It became the world's most powerful accelerator with a run in 1983. Data from its runs led scientists in 1995 to declare they had found the top quark, the most massive of all observed elementary particles.
"Leon Lederman provided the scientific vision that allowed Fermilab to remain on the cutting edge of technology for more than 40 years," laboratory Director Nigel Lockyer said.
Lederman was director of the laboratory from 1978 to 1989. During that time, he began lobbying for building the superconducting super collider, to make the more powerful collisions necessary to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson. Although Illinois lobbied for it to be built here, it was awarded to Texas.
But it was a controversial project for several reasons, including its cost, and the U.S. pulled the plug on construction in the mid-1990s.
It was around the same time Lederman published the book "The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What Is the Question?" Scientists, including the man for whom the Higgs boson is named, shook their heads about the nickname.
Lederman explained it.
"Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one," he wrote.
He went on to compare the modern-day hunt by physicists for a unified theory to explain the universe to the Bible story about men building the Tower of Babel so they could reach heaven.
"One of his greatest skills was getting good people to work with him," said Fermilab scientist Alvin Tollestrup, who worked with Lederman. "He wasn't selfish about his ideas. What he accomplished came about from his ability to put together a great team."
It helped he was charming and funny.
"He seemed to have an enormous storehouse of jokes," Peoples said. "He had a lighthearted personality. He could have been a stand-up comic at times."
On the Fermilab campus, a science education building is named for him. During his tenure as director, the laboratory introduced new amenities, such as a day-care facility and an art gallery. From 1951 to 1978, he mentored 50 doctoral students. He established Fermilab's Saturday Morning Physics program for high school students and taught at it himself.
And the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora was the brainchild of Lederman; Walter Massey, director of Argonne National Laboratory; and the Valley Industrial Association. They convinced state leaders that Illinois should encourage students who were apt in science and mathematics to pursue those subjects with intensity while still in high school. The school also would be a laboratory to test ideas on how to teach those subjects, they said.
The school opened in 1986.
He also tried to adjust the science curriculum for Chicago Public Schools so students would learn physics before tackling chemistry and biology. And in 2008, he took to the streets, setting himself up on a New York City street corner to answer science questions from passers-by.
Lederman received the 1965 National Medal of Science and the Wolf Prize in 1982, and he received the Nobel Prize in 1988 as part of the team that discovered the muon neutrino. He was given the Enrico Fermi Award in 1992 for his contributions.
He is survived by his second wife and his three children.