It's a sad "day" in science. Dr. Leon Lederman died at the age of 96 years.
Leon was a legend in the world of particle physics. Best known perhaps to coin the term "God Particle" in his book of the same name, Leon had an excellent scientific career. From humble beginnings as the son of immigrants whose father operated hand-washing, Lederman rose to the pinnacle of scientific achievement.
After a deployment in the army during the Second World War, Lederman received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1951, finally faculty, and finally head of the Nevis Laboratories in Columbia from 1961 to 1978. From 1
Not only was Leon a fantastic scientist, he was also passionate about communicating science to students and the public. He launched the Saturday Morning Physics program at Fermilab, a 10-week series of particle physics lessons given on Saturday morning. It's free for high school students living in the Chicago area, and it goes on until today. He worked with Illinois politicians to found the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a high school for gifted teens across Illinois.
In 1993, he also wrote the book "The God Particle," which tells the story of the Higgs Particle and many of Lederman's adventures during his physics career. Much to the chagrin of all physicists the name stuck.
Lederman's accomplishments are numerous, and I recommend you read his official obituary to learn more about the life and career of this very accomplished scientist. But I want to talk more about the man Leon.
I knew Lederman well, although the difference in our times meant that we lived a very different life. When I came to Fermilab in 1987, I was a graduate student, a young woman who still found my way into the world of science. In contrast, Leon was the head of the lab, and obviously not someone who had dealt with people like myself. But that's not the guy he was.
A typical example: in the Fermilab cafeteria, in addition to the typical seating areas, there are a few large round tables around which high-ranking scientists usually gather and discuss the topics of the day; However, there is no rule that others can not join. Lederman, the director, would often eat there. Quite often I sat at the table and talked to the group, sometimes talking to Lederman. He never felt uncomfortable, and he was happy to talk about the shop, tell a joke, or ask about his own experiment. Sometimes he helped you find solutions to the problems you had with your measurement. He was a jovial and funny guy.
When his Nobel Prize was announced in 1988, my first thought was, "What for?" That was not because I could not think of a feat that was worth its price, but I could not decide which one. Leon discovered "parity violation" in the decay of subatomic particles called pions and muons, which indirectly leads to differences in matter and antimatter. (All particles have weird siblings called antiparticles that have the same mass but the opposite rotation and charge.) He discovered a long-lived neutral subatomic particle called kaon, which was the first real lab to study how matter is turn into antimatter and back again. He discovered that there was not a kind of neutrino, but that there were two (and finally three). He also led a team that found the bottom quark, proving that there were not two families of subatomic particles called quarks and leptons, but three.
The Nobel Prize for his discovery of a different type turned out to be given by Neutrino
The day Leon's Nobel was announced, we had a big party at Fermilab. I had only been in the lab for a year, but the staff gave him a fake medal and a crown of aluminum foil, and he wore it good-naturedly as he walked around the Fermilab Atrium and accepted well-wishers of well-wishers. I was allowed to shake his hand … the first time I met a Nobel laureate.
During his tenure as Fermilab director, Lederman gave public lectures. In fact, his lectures were legendary, full of interesting stories, cheesy jokes, and a buzzword that made a non-expert listener appreciate the fascinating world of frontier physics. Every time I heard about a conversation he was holding, I would definitely attend. It's not that I've learned physics, after all, these talks were not aimed at scientists but at the public. But I've learned a lot about public speaking by watching him. If you've ever seen me and seen my humor as a trifle on the page, you can thank Leon for putting me on that path.
And Lederman wrote books for the public, most famous of which was "The God Particle". A signed copy of it has a place of honor in my library. The book is a fun read – its personality really comes through – I recommend you to read it if you want to get a feel for the man's voice. And when I read it, I thought, "Hey, I can too." It took about a decade, but I eventually joined him as the author of scientific books for the public. And I was very thankful when Leon was ready to write a foreword to my second book. He was a gracious man who was willing to help others.
I have not seen Leon much in the last decade because illness made it difficult for him to travel. But his influence on me and many, many others will live on. He was a great man and we will miss him all very much.
Originally published on Live Science.
Don Lincoln is a physics researcher at Fermilab. He is the author of "The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary History of the Higgs Boson and Other Things That Will Kill Your Mind" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and he produces a series of science education videos , Follow him on Facebook . The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Don Lincoln contributed this article to the Expert Voices of Live Science: Op-Ed & Insights.