Leon Lederman

When I had to get a handle on particle physics, I read The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question, by American physicist Leon Lederman (with Dick Teresi). It opened with an anecdote about the failed effort to have a particle collider built in the United States. Clearly, this book was not going to be limited to descriptions of the mechanics of particle interactions. It was also about how research has been done, and why it is sometimes not done. Lederman wrote:

“This is a book about a string of infinitely sweet moments that scientists have had over the past 2,500 years. These sweet moments add up to our present knowledge about what the universe is and how it works. The pain and depression are part of the story, too. Often it is the obstinacy, the stubbornness, the pure orneriness of nature that gets in the way of the ‘Eureka’ moment.”

From The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question by Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi (1993)

Lederman died last week, on 3 October 2018, at age 96. As a subatomic physics researcher, he had discovered the muon neutrino in 1962 and the bottom quark in 1977. In 1988, he shared the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on neutrinos.

By 2015, Lederman had severe dementia. His family sold his Nobel Prize to pay for his treatment and care. This was a heartbreak Lederman could not have predicted. I could not help but think of how his country’s failure to fund medicare infrastructure was akin to its failure to support scientific infrastructure. Both seem resulted from a shortsightedness that is keeping the country from nurturing, developing, and just plain valuing, its human resources.

One of Lederman’s colleagues, Michael Turner, said to Carol Off on As It Happens, that Lederman man probably won’t—and shouldn’t—be remembered primarily for the difficulties he faced at the end of his life. Lederman should be remembered for his scientific research and for inspiring generations of physicists and the physics-curious.


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