Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman Dies at 96

Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize winner who served as Fermilab’s director from 1978 to 1989, died at age 96 on October 3 at a nursing home in Rexburg ID.

Lederman’s overall career spanned more than 60 years, a time period where he was known as both a trail-blazing researcher responsible for several breakthroughs and one who possessed a passion for science education. His well-known work includes the discovery of new particles that elevated collective understanding of the fundamental universe and winning the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the muon neutrino.

Fermilab also says that perhaps Lederman’s most critical achievements were his influence on the field and efforts to improve science education.

“Leon Lederman provided the scientific vision that allowed Fermilab to remain on the cutting edge of technology for more than 40 years,” says Nigel Lockyer, the laboratory’s current director. “Leon’s leadership helped to shape the field of particle physics, designing, building and operating the Tevatron and positioning the laboratory to become a world leader in accelerator and neutrino science. Today, we continue to develop and build the next generation of particle accelerators and detectors and help to advance physics globally. Leon had an immeasurable impact on the evolution of our laboratory and our commitment to future generations of scientists, and his legacy will live on in our daily work and our outreach efforts.”

Lederman rose to researcher prominence through early award-winning work and quickly began to influence science policy. In the early 1960s, he proposed the idea for the National Accelerator Laboratory that eventually became Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He worked with laboratory founder Robert R. Wilson to establish a community of users, credentialed individuals from around the world who could use the facilities and join experimental collaborations.

“One of his greatest skills was getting good people to work with him,” says Fermilab scientist Alvin Tollestrup, who worked with Lederman for more than 40 years and was impressed by his ability to bring people together. “He wasn’t selfish about his ideas. What he accomplished came about from his ability to put together a great team.”

Lederman began his tenure as Fermilab’s director in 1978, a time when both the laboratory staff and the greater particle physics community were deeply divided. In the years that followed, Lederman was able to unify Fermilab and also rally the US particle physics community around the idea of building a proton-antiproton collider. The particle accelerator—originally called the energy doubler and then eventually Tevatron—became the world’s highest-energy particle collider in 1983 and continued in that position until 2010.

“Leon gave US and world physicists a step up, a unique facility, a very high-energy collider, and his successors keep working for these things,” says John Peoples, a director who worked with Lederman for more than 40 years and served as Lederman’s deputy director from 1988 to 1989. “Leon made that happen. He set things in motion.”

Fermilab even now emphasizes that in order to begin his plans for a high-energy proton-antiproton collider, Lederman convinced the now only the physics community, but the Department of Energy, representatives from Congress and a science advisor serving president Reagan.

“Leon had the ability to lead. He was unifying and convincing,” Peoples says. “He had the ability to listen to people carefully and could synthesize things well. He was very persuasive. In some sense, I was manipulated at every level.”

Lederman was born in New York City and graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in chemistry in 1943. At that point, he is known to have become friends with a group of physicists and became interested in the topic. But first he served three years with the United States Army during World War II, before returning to Columbia University in New York to pursue to earn a PhD in particle physics in 1951. During graduate school, Lederman joined the Columbia physics department in constructing a 385-MeV synchrotron at Nevis Lab at Irvington-on-the Hudson, New York. He remained there as part of that collaboration for 28 years and eventually served as director of Nevis labs from 1961 to 1978.

In 1956, while working as part of a Columbia team at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lederman discovered the long-lived neutral K meson. And in 1962, Lederman produced a beam of neutrinos using a high-energy accelerator along with colleagues Jack Steinberger and Melvin Schwartz. The group discovered that sometimes, instead of producing an electron, a muon is produced, showing the existence of a new type of neutrino, the muon neutrino. That discovery eventually earned them the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics.

The advancement of particle accelerators continued to spur discoveries. At Brookhaven in 1965, Lederman and his team found the first antinucleus in the form of antideuteron—an antiproton and an antineutron. And in 1977, at Fermilab, Lederman led the team that discovered the bottom quark, at the time the first of a suspected new family of heavy particles.

Lederman served as director of Fermilab from 1978 to 1989. During his tenure as laboratory director, Lederman had a significant impact on laboratory culture. He was responsible for establishing new amenities that set Fermilab apart from other labs, such as the first daycare facility at a Department of Energy national laboratory and an art gallery that continues to host rotating exhibits.

As director of Fermilab, Lederman established the ongoing Saturday Morning Physics program that has attracted students from around the Chicago areas for decades to learn more about particle physics from experts, originally from Lederman, and then a long list of leading scientists. The program has inspired generations of high school students.

Recognizing the need for more focused education in science and math, Lederman focused on creating learning spaces and opportunities for students. In the early 1980s, Lederman worked with members of the Illinois state government to start the Illinois Math and Science Academy. The establishment was founded in 1985 and he thereafter worked with officials to try to adjust the science curriculum in Chicago’s public schools so that students learned physics first, forming the foundation for future scientific education. He also founded and was chairman of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science and was active in the professional development of primary school teachers in Chicago. And he helped to find the nonprofit Fermilab Friends for Science Education, a national leading organization in precollege science education.

In later years, Lederman continued his outreach efforts, often in memorable ways. In 2008, he set up shop on the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue in New York City and answered science questions from passersby.

During his career, Lederman received some of the highest national and international awards and honors given to scientists, including the 1965 National Medal of Science, the 1972 Elliot Creeson Medal from the Franklin Institute, the Wolf Prize in 1982 and the Nobel Prize in 1988. He received the Enrico Fermi Award in 1992 for his career contributions to science, technology and medicine related to nuclear energy and the science and technology of energy, and was given the Vannevar Bush Award in 2012 for exceptional lifelong leaders in science and technology.

In addition to his appointments at Columbia, Nevis and Fermilab, Lederman also served as the Pritzker professor of science at Illinois Institute of Technology and chairman of the State of Illinois Governor’s Science Advisory Committee. He also served on the Board of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board and others.

When Lederman stepped down as Fermilab’s director in 1989 and Peoples took the role, Lederman shared some sage advice. A desk nameplate that sits on Peoples’s desk more than 25 years later reads “I’m listening.”