Prof. Emeritus Leon Lederman, a Nobel-winning physicist and scientific leader with a passion for science education, died on Oct. 3 in Rexburg, Idaho. He was 96.
With a career that spanned more than 60 years, Lederman, the Frank L. Sulzberger Prof. Emeritus of Physics, became one of the most important figures in the history of particle physics. He was responsible for several breakthrough discoveries, uncovering new particles that elevated our understanding of the fundamental universe, and he led the construction of the Tevatron at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which was the highest-energy accelerator in the world for 30 years.
But perhaps one of Lederman’s proudest achievements, his colleagues said, was his efforts to improve science education.
“Lederman had an enormous impact beyond his fundamental discoveries in physics. He was enormously effective in changing how physicists regard the value of public outreach and education,” said Edward “Rocky” Kolb, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. “He was the most effective spokesperson for communicating the value and beauty of physics to the general public. His passion for science—and his commitment to public understanding and appreciation of science—was contagious.”
“Visionary is a word that is overused these days, but Leon was a true visionary,” said Michael Turner, the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor in Physics at UChicago, whom Lederman recruited to Fermilab along with Kolb to start an astrophysics group there. “He made extraordinary contributions to our understanding of the basic forces and particles of nature, but he was also a leader far ahead of his time in science education, in serving as an ambassador for science around the world, and transferring benefits of basic research to the national good.”
Scientific leader and visionary
Lederman was born on July 15, 1922 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in New York City. His father, who operated a hand laundry, revered learning. Lederman graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in chemistry in 1943, although by that point, he had become friends with a group of physicists and became interested in the topic. He served three years with the U.S. Army in World War II and then returned to Columbia University in New York to pursue his PhD in particle physics, which he received in 1951.
In 1962, Lederman, along with colleagues Jack Steinberger and Melvin Schwartz, produced a beam of neutrinos—ghostly subatomic particles—using a high-energy accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory. There they discovered the existence of a new type of neutrino, which was dubbed the muon neutrino. That discovery would earn them the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics. It confirmed that elementary particles are grouped in pairs—a cornerstone of the model that today explains nearly all of physics, called the Standard Model.