Leon Lederman, Jewish Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist Who Coined the ‘God Particle’, Dies at 96

Dr. Lederman, reaching for ways to make physics go down easier, nicknamed the Higgs boson “the God particle,” to the consternation of some colleagues.
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Leon Lederman, whose ingenious experiments with particle accelerators deepened science’s understanding of the subatomic world, died early Wednesday in Rexburg, Idaho. He was 96.

His wife, Ellen Carr Lederman, confirmed the death, at a care facility. She and Dr. Lederman, who had long directed the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago, had retired to eastern Idaho.

Early in his career Dr. Lederman and two colleagues demonstrated that there are at least two kinds of particles called neutrinos (there are now known to be three), a discovery that was honored in 1988 with a Nobel Prize in Physics. He went on to lead a team at the Fermi laboratory, in Batavia, Ill., that found the bottom quark, another fundamental constituent of matter.

For those baffled by such esoterica, Dr. Lederman was quick to sympathize.

“ ‘The Two Neutrinos’ sounds like an Italian dance team,” he remarked in his Nobel banquet speech. But he was determined to spread the word about the importance of the science he loved:

“How can we have our colleagues in chemistry, medicine, and especially in literature share with us, not the cleverness of our research, but the beauty of the intellectual edifice, of which our experiment is but one brick?”

He used his share of the prize winnings (the physicists Jack Steinberger and Melvin Schwartz were also awarded the Nobel in 1988) to buy a log house in Idaho, in the Teton Valley, where he would later retire. By that time he was known as a pre-eminent figure in both discovering new physics and explaining it to the rest of the world.

“We’re teaching high school science in the wrong order — biology, chemistry and then, for 20 percent of the students, eventually physics,” he told Claudia Dreifus in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. That, he contended, was upside down.

“The subjects are unrelated, to be learned and forgotten — in the order taken,” Dr. Lederman lamented. Much better, he said, would be to begin with physics, including a basic understanding of atoms. That would lay the groundwork for chemistry, in which atoms join to form molecules, and then biology, where the interaction of molecules gives rise to life. Maybe next could come psychology.

A curriculum like that, called Physics First, would reprise the history of the universe, Dr. Lederman said: “Atoms formed molecules, and the molecules formed things that crawled out of the ocean. And here we are, worrying about the whole thing!”

Joseph D. Lykken, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab, said he considered Dr. Lederman “the best ambassador of physics to the general public since Einstein.”

“Instead of intimidating people with fancy jargon and mathematical equations, Leon had the ability to convey the genuine joy and fun of doing science,” Dr. Lykken said in an interview. “He used his inexhaustible grab bag of jokes to burst the bubble of the scientist as dignified brainiac and bring modern science back to the human scale.”

Reaching for ways to make physics go down easier, he nicknamed the Higgs boson “the God particle,” to the consternation of some colleagues. That was also the name of his book — a popularization of physics published in 1993 — written with the science journalist Dick Teresi.

“The publisher wouldn’t let us call it the God-damn particle,” they wrote, noting how successfully the Higgs was eluding capture in particle accelerator experiments. Its existence was not established until 2012. (The Higgs boson, which interacts with other particles to give them mass, was named after the British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.)”

The source of his humor, Dr. Lederman said in the Times interview, came “from a terror of taking myself seriously.”

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SOURCE: New York Times, George Johnson