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Leon Lederman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist who led Fermilab, has died at 96

Leon Lederman.

Leon Lederman. | Sun-Times files

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, a former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, died Wednesday at 96 at a nursing home in Rexburg, Idaho, according to the University of Chicago.

Mr. Lederman, known for his charismatic personality and witty and engaging ability to break down complex theories for non-scientists, shared the Nobel in 1988 for the discovery of the muon neutrino, one of the building blocks of matter. The university said his work helped lay a foundation for other
experimental breakthroughs such as the discovery of the Higgs boson, which he dubbed “the God particle.”

In 1977, he led a team at Fermilab that discovered the subatomic particle called the bottom quark — a huge find in the world of physics. The next year, he was named director of the lab, run by the U. of C. under contract with the federal government.

He also wrote a popular book, “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?” And he helped found the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

“The fact that he was a participant in four major discoveries in our field — the discovery of the K-meson, when he was a young guy, his work on parity violation, the discovery of the muon neutrino and of the bottom quark — speaks of some uncanny instinct to be in the right place at the right time,” Fermilab physicist Drasko Jovanovic told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. “You would not have that impression if you talked to him. He is mostly telling jokes.”

When Mr. Lederman won the Nobel in 1988, he wisecracked about it being a year for recognizing scientific seniors. “I’m so old,” he said, “I can remember when the Dead Sea was only sick.”

Asked what he was going to do with his share of the $390,000 prize, he joked, “Just carry on as usual. I’ll buy a castle in Spain and a string of racehorses and figure out what to do with the rest.”

Leon Lederman, who was the director of Fermilab, with a two-foot-high replica of his hero Albert Einstein that stood on his desk. | Sun-Times files

And, while teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the mid-1990s, he described a slightly inaccurate scientific calculation as “good enough for government work.”

“Lederman had an enormous impact beyond his fundamental discoveries in physics,” said Edward W. “Rocky” Kolb, a U. of C. professor. “He was the most effective spokesperson for communicating the value and beauty of physics to the general public.”

“I absolutely loved the way he worked with students,” IMSA’s Don Dosch said on the Aurora school’s website. “He introduced students to the academic community by bringing in his fellow Nobel laureates so they could learn from, interact with and be inspired by the greatest minds of our time.”

In 2008, Mr. Lederman set up a table on a New York City sidewalk under a sign that read “Ask a Nobel Prize-winning Physicist” and  took questions from people walking by.

“Visionary is a word that is overused these days, but Leon was a true visionary,” said Michael S. Turner, a U. of C. theoretical cosmologist. “He made extraordinary contributions to our understanding of the basic forces and particles of nature, but he was also a leader far ahead of his time in science education, in serving as an ambassador for science around the world and transferring benefits of basic research to the national good.”

Mr. Lederman, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants, grew up in New York City and was educated at public schools. In his Nobel biography, he said his father Morris operated a laundry and “venerated learning.”

Young Leon earned a chemistry degree from the City College of New York. He said that after he returned home from serving as an Army second lieutenant in Europe in World War II, he took a cab straight to Columbia University, where he pursued a Ph.D. in particle physics.

In the late 1970s, he left a teaching and research post at Columbia to head Fermilab, leading a $500 million upgrade that made the facility the globe’s most powerful atom-smasher.

He retired from Fermilab in 1989 and taught physics at the U. of C. and at IIT.

He called Chicago, his adopted home, “a town because a dignified city doesn’t have the rampant boosterism that Chicago has. You don’t go to the Lyric; you subscribe. You don’t go to the Art Institute; you belong.”

Mr. Lederman is survived by his photographer-wife of 37 years Ellen and three children from his previous marriage to Florence Gordon: daughters Rena, an anthropologist, and Rachel, a lawyer, and son Jesse, a banker.

He once described the thrill of scientific discovery this way: “It’s 3 in the morning, you’re all alone, or maybe you have a graduate student. You’re looking at the data from the computer, and suddenly you see something totally new. There are 4 billion people on this planet, and only you know this fact. That’s where the reward comes in. That’s when you get sweaty palms. This has happened to me three or four times in my lifetime. That’s way above average.”



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