Leon Lederman, Nobel-winning physicist and 'visionary' educator, 1922-2018

Former Fermilab director changed how scholars and general public viewed science

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.

In 1965, Lederman and his team also found the first antinucleus in the form of antideuteron—an antiproton and an antineutron.

As he rose to prominence as a researcher, he began to influence science policy. In the early 1960s, he proposed the idea for the National Accelerator Laboratory, which eventually became Fermilab. There, in 1977, Lederman led the team that discovered the bottom quark, at the time the first of a suspected new family of heavy particles.

When he became director of Fermilab in 1978, Lederman rallied the U.S. particle physics community—and President Reagan’s science adviser and Congress—around the idea of building a proton-antiproton collider. Originally called the energy doubler, the particle accelerator eventually became the Tevatron, the world’s highest-energy particle collider from 1983 until 2010.

“Leon Lederman provided the scientific vision that allowed Fermilab to remain on the cutting edge of technology for more than 40 years,” said Nigel Lockyer, the laboratory’s current director. “Leon’s leadership helped to shape the field of particle physics, designing, building and operating the Tevatron and positioning the laboratory to become a world leader in accelerator and neutrino science. Today, we continue to develop and build the next generation of particle accelerators and detectors and help to advance physics globally. Leon had an immeasurable impact on the evolution of our laboratory and our commitment to future generations of scientists, and his legacy will live on in our daily work and our outreach efforts.”

Tireless advocate for science

Lederman’s ability to convince others stemmed in part from his charm and his sense of humor, said former Fermilab Director John Peoples, who worked with Lederman for more than 40 years and served as Lederman’s deputy director from 1988 to 1989.

“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.”

One of Lederman’s passions was science education. In the early 1980s, Lederman worked with members of the Illinois government to start the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and worked with officials to strengthen the science curriculum in Chicago’s public schools. He founded and was chairman of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science, and was active in the professional development of primary school teachers in Chicago. In 2008 the University honored Lederman with the Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service for his “innovative approaches to financing and teaching primary education in science and mathematics.”

He left Fermilab to fully pursue his interest in science education as professor of physics at the University of Chicago in 1989. In 1993, he and writer Dick Teresi published a popular science book called The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

Although famously Lederman coined the term “God particle” in the book, he later explained in an interview with the Nobel Foundation: “The god in my book is not a theological god, it’s more of a philosophical god—it’s really a metaphor for nature. Nature is very puzzling, nature has to be understood.”

Lederman received some of the highest national and international awards and honors given to scientists. In addition to the Nobel, these include the 1965 National Medal of Science, the 1972 Elliot Creeson Medal from the Franklin Institute and the Wolf Prize in 1982. He received the Enrico Fermi Award in 1992 for his career contributions to science, technology and medicine related to nuclear energy and the science and technology of energy, and was given the Vannevar Bush Award in 2012 for exceptional lifelong leadership in science and technology.

As news of his death circulated, so did stories of his humor: He showed up to a Fermilab event dressed as a knight in a suit of armor. He sometimes wandered the halls of the science academy he founded while wearing the Nobel Prize, just because students got a kick out of it. Asked if his photo could be taken at the end of the interview, he said, “Sure. It’s only photons.”

He is survived by his wife of 37 years, Ellen; and children Rena, Jesse and Rachel, from his first wife, Florence Gordon.

Story first appeared on the Fermilab website.