Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
A smiling white-haired man in a sweater.
enlarge / Leon Lederman outside Fermilab in May 2008.

He was a leading light of particle physics and headed one of the most prestigious physics labs in the world. He won the Nobel Prize and annoyed his colleagues in the field of physics by using the term “the god particle” to describe the Higgs boson. That long, rich life came to an end early Wednesday morning when physicist Leon Lederman died of complications from dementia at the age of 96.

Lederman first made an impression as a young physicist working on Columbia University’s brand-new cyclotron in the 1950s. In June 1956, two theoretical physicists, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, published a paper proposing that parity may not be conserved in weak interactions, and suggested several experiments to test their hypothesis. Parity was considered a fundamental symmetry in physics because our world is indistinguishable from its mirror image. In other words, there should be no difference, on a subatomic scale, between left- and right-handed rotations, or opposite sides of a subatomic particle.

Between Christmas and New Years, a team of physicists from the National Bureau of Standards led by Chien-Shiung Wu conducted a series of experiments. Wu and her colleagues were shocked to find that — at least when it came to the beta decay of cobalt-60 cores — parity was indeed violated: Nature seemed somewhat left-handed. Lederman was having lunch with colleagues at a Chinese restaurant near Columbia when he heard about the results. He quickly verified them by conducting his own different series of experiments and came to the same conclusion.

Lederman joked during his Nobel lecture that ‘The Two Neutrinos’ sounded like an Italian dance team.

In 1962, Lederman struck experimental gold again while working on an experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s accelerator. He helped lay the framework for what we now call the Standard Model of particle physics. Lederman and two colleagues, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger, noted that their neutron beams sometimes produced a muon instead of the expected electron, proving the existence of the muon neutrino. So there were at least two kinds of neutrinos, not one.

He shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics with Schwartz and Steinberger for that work, joking during his Nobel lecture that “The Two Neutrinos” sound like an Italian dance team. Physicists then discovered a third neutrino, the tau neutrino, which was accompanied by yet another (even heavier) electron.

The newly minted Nobel laureate in his Fermilab office in 1988.
enlarge / The newly minted Nobel laureate in his Fermilab office in 1988.

Public domain

This was sort of a golden age for particle physics, as physicists spent decades discovering particle after particle to fill out the Standard Model. Lederman went on to lead the Fermilab team that discovered the bottom quark in 1977, becoming the lab’s director the following year. With the discovery of the top quark in Fermilab in 1995, the standard model was virtually complete. There was only one persistent particle left: the Higgs boson.

The Higgs proved so elusive to be discovered that Lederman jokingly suggested giving a title to his popular book on hunting (co-authored with science journalist Dick Teresi) The Damned Particle. The publisher removed the profanity and it became… The God Particle instead, even though the Higgs boson has nothing to do with religion of any kind. The moniker is universally abhorred by physicists, including Peter Higgs himself, from whom the boson takes its name.

Science journalist Ian Sample once asked a physicist at the University of Manchester what he thought of the name. The answer:

He paused. He sighed. And then he said, “I really, really do not like it. It sends all the wrong messages. It’s exaggerating. It makes us arrogant. It’s bullshit.” He added: “If you were to walk down the hall here, stick your head in people’s offices and ask that question, you’d probably be struck by flying books.

Lederman was diagnosed with senile dementia six years ago. His doctors recommended a quieter area, so he moved with his wife, Ellen, to their log cabin in Teton Valley, Idaho. They auctioned off his gold Nobel medallion to cover the additional medical costs. It sold for just over $765,000, and Ellen Lederman told NBC News she was surprised it sold at all: “We would let little kids play with it and have their picture taken.” According to his wife, Lederman’s last years were quiet contentment, even though he remembered less and less of his long, fulfilling life.

By akfire1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.