July 15, 1922 is the birthday of Leon Lederman, the physicist and educator who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physics for his part in the discovery of a subatomic particle called the mu meson neutrino. Among the general public, Lederman is also known as the person who dubbed the long-elusive Higgs boson the “God particle,” because of the keystone-like role it played in the so-called standard model of particle physics – used to explain the basic order of the universe – during the many decades when the very existence of the boson still remained to be proved.
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Leon Max Lederman was born July 15, 1922, in New York, and grew up in the Bronx. His parents were both Jewish immigrants from pre-revolutionary Russia: Morris Lederman, who ran a laundry, and the former Minna Rosenberg.
After graduating from James Monroe High School in the South Bronx, in 1939, Lederman, like so many other first-generation New Yorkers in those decades, attended the City College of New York, where he studied chemistry. Later, it was his boyhood friend Martin J. Klein who, “during a long evening over many beers,” according to Lederman, convinced him of “the splendors of physics” – the field he pursued in graduate school, at Columbia University. (Klein went on to become a historian of physics of some renown.)
Between college and graduate school, Lederman spent three years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, being discharged with the rank of second lieutenant.
Working with Columbia’s synchro-cyclotron, at the time the world’s most powerful nuclear accelerator, Lederman began moving in the direction of particle physics. Under the direction of I.I. Rabi, who himself won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944, he received his doctorate in 1951, and immediately began teaching at Columbia.
Particle physics aims to understand the basic building blocks of matter, as well as the forces that hold those building blocks together. This knowledge can be used not only to explain the world as it is today, but also to theorize about the origins of the universe, as well as its inevitable future.
The “standard model,” as it was ultimately conceived during the 20th century, identified the basic components of the atom – the electron, proton and neutron – and the 12 different quarks and leptons that comprise those components. It also identified the four forces – gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak – that direct the particles’ behavior.
Lederman shared the Nobel Prize with Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger for the work they did together in 1962, discovering the mu meson, or muon, a type of neutrino (a charge-less particle with no detectable mass), and thus helping to prove the existence of the so-called weak force at work in atomic nuclei.
Proving the existence of the Higgs boson, which happened only in 2012, was another step – if not the final one – in confirming the accuracy of the standard model, and it wasn’t even attemptable before the creation of the ultra-powerful Large Hydron Collider at CERN laboratories in Switzerland.
Lederman dubbed it the “God particle” in a 1993 book of that name, in part, he wrote, because “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.
As hinted above, Lederman is a great explainer of science, and he has been very active in promoting science education in the United States, teaching at the undergraduate level, helping to found a high school in Chicago for children gifted in science and math, and heading an organization to educate primary-school science teachers.
Earlier this year, the 93-year-old Lederman, who lives in retirement in rural Idaho, and is now suffering from dementia and from the contingent expenses of medical care, accepted an offer from an online auctioneer to sell off his Nobel Prize. At the time, he told the Associated Press that he can no longer remember his scientific work: “I don’t have any real stories to tell about it,” he said. “I sit on my deck and look at the mountains.”
The medal fetched $765,000 at auction.