Leon Max Lederman (born July 15, 1922) is an American experimental physicist and Nobel Prize in Physics laureate for his work with neutrinos. He is Director Emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, USA. He founded theIllinois Mathematics and Science Academy, in Aurora, Illinois in 1986, and has served in the capacity of Resident Scholar since 1998.
Lederman graduated from the James Monroe High School in the South Bronx. He received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1943, and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1951. He then joined the Columbia faculty and eventually became Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics. He took an extended leave of absence from Columbia in 1979 to become Fermilab’s director. He resigned from Columbia and Fermilab in 1989 and taught briefly at the University of Chicago before moving toIllinois Institute of Technology, where he currently serves as the Pritzker Professor of Science. In 1991, Lederman became President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lederman is also one of the main proponents of the “Physics First” movement. Also known as “Right-side Up Science” and “Biology Last,” this movement seeks to rearrange the current high school science curriculum so that physics precedes chemistry and biology.
A former president of the American Physical Society, Lederman also received the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize and the Ernest O. Lawrence Medal. Lederman serves as President of the Board of Sponsors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1989-1992. He was called a “modern day Leonardo Da Vinci” by the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
Among his achievements are the discovery of the muon neutrino in 1962 and the bottom quark in 1977. These helped establish his reputation as among the top particle physicists.
In 1977, a group of physicists led by Leon Lederman announced that a particle with a mass of about 6.0 GeV was being produced by the Fermilab particle accelerator. The particle’s initial name was the greek letter Upsilon (). After taking further data, the group discovered that this particle did not actually exist, and the “discovery” was named “Oops-Leon” as a pun on the original name and Dr. Lederman’s first name.
In 1988, Lederman received the Nobel Prize for Physics along with Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger “for the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the muon neutrino”. Lederman also received the National Medal of Science (1965), the Elliott Cresson Medal for Physics (1976), the Wolf Prize for Physics (1982) and the Enrico Fermi Award (1992).
Lederman was an early supporter of Science Debate 2008, an initiative to get the then-candidates for president, Barack Obama and John McCain, to debate the nation’s top science policy challenges. In October 2010, Lederman participated in the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Lunch with a Laureate program where middle and high school students got to engage in an informal conversation with a Nobel Prize-winning Scientist over a brown bag lunch. Lederman was also a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Advisory Board and CRDF Global.
Dr. Lederman was born in New York to a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father operated a hand laundry while encouraging Leon to get his education. His father may have been a motivating force for Leon, who went far in education and life. He started school at around the age of five in 1927 at PS 92 on Broadway and 95th Street, in New York City. His education, from 1927 until 1951, when he received his Ph.D. was centered around this neighborhood or area where he grew up. This included junior and senior high schools, and City College of New York. Columbia University is only about a mile from where he went to elementary school.
In his well received book,”The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?, Lederman says that, although he was a chemistry major he became fascinated with physics, because of the clarity of the logic and the unambiguous results from experimentation. His best friend during his college years, Martin Klein, convinced him of “the splendors of physics during a long evening over many beers.” After that conversation he became resolute and unwavering regarding his future; physics was for him. When he joined the Army with a B.S. in Chemistry, he was determined to become a physicist after he got out of the Army.
After three years in the army during World War II, he took up physics at Columbia University, and received his Masters in 1948. Lederman began his Ph.D research working with Columbia’s Nevis synchro-cyclotron, which was the most powerful particle accelerator in the world at that time. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the president of Columbia University, and future president of the United States, cut the ribbon dedicating the synchro-cyclotron in June 1950. These atom smashers were just coming of age at this time and created the new discipline of particle physics.
After receiving his Ph.D and then becoming a faculty member at Columbia University he was promoted to full professor in 1958.
In “The God Particle” he once wrote “The history of atomism is one of reductionism – the effort to reduce all the operations of nature to a small number of laws governing a small number of primordial objects.” And this was the quest he undertook. This book shows that he pursued the quark, and hopes to find the Higgs boson. The top quark, which he and other physicists realized must exist according to the standard model, was, in fact, produced at Fermilab not long after this book was published.
He is known for his sense of humor in the physics community, and to anyone who has read his book, “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?”, which has very humorous moments. So, on August 26, 2008 Dr. Lederman was video-recorded by a science focused organization called ScienCentral, on the street in a major U.S. city, answering questions from passersby. He answered questions such as “What is the strong force?” and “What happened before the Big Bang?”.
He has three children with his first wife, Florence Gordon, and now lives with his second wife, Ellen, in Batavia, Illinois.
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