Quarky Character

A profile of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman

By Delia O’Hara / Staff Reporter / Chicago Sun-Times / People Plus cover / 05/01/94

Last summer, when President Clinton presented physicist Leon Lederman with the Enrico Fermi Award, one of the U.S. government’s oldest and most prestigious science awards, he told Lederman that the country owed him a great debt.

Mindful of his reputation as “an unreconstructed fund-raiser” for his pet projects, Lederman cracked, “Mr. President, could you estimate approximately how much that is?”

Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in west suburban Batavia, is almost as famous for his sense of humor as for his Nobel Prize-winning experiments.

“Leon modestly says that he was due for three Nobel Prizes by the time he got one, and it’s true,” says Drasko Jovanovic, a senior physicist at Fermilab. “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. You would not have that impression if you talked to him. He is mostly telling jokes.”

One recent morning in a lecture hall on the South Side campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, Lederman covers the boards at the front of the room with equations, as well as little cars, hourglasses and other doodads. Now in his guise as an IIT professor, Lederman has been here for some time; he spent two hours driving in from the western suburbs in heavy traffic to help some graduate students with an experiment before class.

At 8:45 a.m., the 71-year-old Lederman, dressed in chinos and a white tennis sweater, turns his attention to his freshman physics class – that is, to the half-dozen or so sleepy-looking students who have managed to get themselves to class on time.

As the rest of the class straggles in, Lederman, whose curly white hair often prompts comparisons to Albert Einstein, drops funny lines (“Good enough for government work,” he says of one calculation that comes up a little short) and cajoles his audience to engage with the material (“Anyone skeptical?” he asks hopefully).

The South Side campus may seem a long way from the high-energy laboratory at Fermilab, but it’s all part of Lederman’s lifelong campaign on behalf of basic science.

“He really looks to try to give others at least a little bit of the sense of excitement, the joy that can come from being involved in science,” says his 39-year-old son, Jess, a novelist and former investment banker, who lives in Idaho.

And science would be hard-pressed to find a better ambassador.

He’s charming, approachable, comfortable in any crowd and never at a loss for a joke.

“Life with Leon is busy, complicated, interesting – and never dull,” says his wife, Ellen, who is a photographer. “I’ve never known anyone with the energy he has.”

In 1977, Lederman headed a team that discovered the bottom quark, the 11th of the 12 basic building blocks of matter to be identified; there was a long gap before the momentous announcement last Tuesday that Fermilab scientists had finally tracked down the bottom quark’s mate, the top quark.

When Lederman became director of Fermilab in 1979, one of his first tasks was to decide how to proceed with the hunt for the top quark.

“We were faced with a dilemma: Should we build a superconducting machine, or stop and compete with CERN (a Swiss accelerator also searching for the top quark)? Leon made the cardinally important decision to opt for the future,” says Jovanovic, one of the more than 400 scientists who were involved in the discovery of the top quark.

Construction of the superconducting Tevatron, which doubled the original, four-miles-around accelerator’s power, plus other equipment that allowed for head-on collisions of particles and the detection of the products of those collisions – plus 15 years of work by hundreds of people – made the difference in the end, Lederman says.

But Lederman’s innovations didn’t stop with the hardware.

During his tenure at Fermilab, the computer system vaulted into the 21st century. Lederman also instituted an ambitious program of outreach for science education that began with the Saturday Morning Physics Program, a 10-week seminar for science-oriented area high school students; strengthened the lab’s ties to industry, and brought in scientists from countries not usually associated with high-energy research, especially South America.

He also enhanced the quality of his staff’s lives in a dozen ways. The “director’s coffee hour” encouraged scientists to swap thoughts at least once a day, and Fermilab had the first on-site day-care center in any national laboratory of the Department of Energy.

Lederman was an early and strong supporter of the superconducting supercollider, which would have topped Fermilab’s energy potential by a factor of 20. Congress aborted the project last fall after committing billions of dollars to its construction in Texas. (It was a major disappointment of Lederman’s directorship that the project wasn’t built at Fermilab.)

Now that his own involvement with research is winding down — he says he’s mostly a “voyeur” — he works tirelessly, every day of his life, on as many fronts as he can cover, to ensure that the scientists coming up behind him will have the knowledge and the tools they need.

“He is a scientist by trade, but he is an educator and a teacher in his heart,” says Stephanie Pace Marshall, founding director of the Illinois Math and Science Academy.

The residential high school in Aurora for top students from all over the state was Lederman’s idea; he worked to get it up and running and is vice president of its board of directors.

He also helped found the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science, housed on IIT’s campus, where since 1990 Chicago public school teachers have been coming to improve their skills in teaching math and science.

When in 1989 he retired as Fermilab director, Lederman took a teaching position at the University of Chicago, where he taught a popular science course for undergraduate liberal arts majors called “Physics for Poets.”

Shelved just a few years later by the U. of C.’s mandatory retirement policy at the age of 70, Lederman accepted a position not at another elite school, but at IIT, which draws most of its students from public schools.

The “megalomania of the physicist” also came into play, he says.  “If I taught at IIT, I would be committed to (working to improve) public education” because “everyone agrees that (students coming from urban public high schools) are missing important ingredients.”

Lederman himself was a product of public schools in the Bronx. He was the son of Russian Jews; his father ran a laundry in Manhattan. His older brother, Paul, an inventive sort who dropped out of high school, used to let Leon help him with his experiments in exchange for his doing all the household chores.

Lederman was a “B+ student” in high school, more interested in basketball and girls than in his classes; he was a little more focused as a chemistry major in college, he says.

After college, he served in the army during World War II.

When he got off the boat from Europe, Lederman took a cab straight to Columbia University to enroll as a graduate student in physics; he had decided “physicists were funnier and played better basketball” than chemists.

Lederman taught at Columbia University for nearly 30 years and did cutting-edge research in “particle physics,” as work with the tiniest bits of matter is known. He talks about those exciting moments, which often came in the middle of the night, “when you realize that you’ve found something new.  These are intensely emotional experiences, to discover something that 5 billion people out there don’t know about.”

Rena, the oldest of Lederman’s three children from his first marriage, says that “his work was his blood. It was not just a job; it was truly internal to him.”

Now an anthropology professor at Princeton University, Rena says her father’s dedication made her seek equally satisfying work.

Over the course of his career, Lederman has been covered with just about as much glory as one man can carry: Even before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988 for the 1961 discovery of the muon neutrino, he joked that it took him half an hour every morning to transfer all his medals from his pajamas to his jacket.

Now, Lederman could relax. He could enjoy the pleasant, bucolic life — complete with two horses and a pony named Joe — he has with Ellen, his second wife, and their standard poodle, Chloe, in an 1860 farmhouse on the Fermilab grounds. (They also have an apartment in Hyde Park and a home in the mountains of Idaho.)

So why is he teaching basic physics to a passel of prospective engineers?

“This is the kind of thing I think a guy with my color hair should be doing,” he says with a shrug.  “It’s opening a door to physics.  It’s more interesting in many cases than teaching advanced courses.”

It also continues his commitment to Chicago, where he’s grown comfortable. The raucous Council Wars on television provided a crash course on the city.

“I’ve always called it a town, because a dignified city doesn’t have the rampant boosterism that Chicago has. You don’t go to the Lyric; you subscribe,” he chuckles. “You don’t go to the Art Institute; you belong.”

Says his friend the artist Martyl, whose husband, Alexander Langsdorf, is a retired physicist from Argonne National Laboratory, “I think Leon is an absolute genius– first-class.  He has done more for Illinois than anybody I can think of.  He has revolutionized the state in education and science.  He hasn’t done it all by himself, but he’s a catalyst.  He gets people to do things.”



The practitioners of basic science aren’t able to point to the products of their work – to something, say, like an electric light bulb – because they are working several steps back from any nifty inventions that the man on the street can relate to. They are more concerned with things like how electricity work.

“We’re trying to understand the universe,” says Leon Lederman, director emeritus of Fermilab.  “Don’t worry about the money (that pays for basic research).  We’ll be paid back with interest.”

Lederman points to the development of superconducting materials Fermilab needed by the ton to double the energy potential of its accelerator, which was achieved in 1979. No existing industry could produce those materials in the early 1970s, so Fermilab’s scientists did it themselves.

However, once the technology existed to produce those materials in bulk, whole new industries sprang up to put them to use, he says.

For example, the technology for magnetic resonance imaging, which had been coming together in other fields, used superconducting wire — which doesn’t heat up when current runs through it — that was developed at Fermilab.

The MRI, which allows doctors to see soft tissue inside the human body and is “a fantastic life-saving device,” Lederman says, is a $6 billion industry now, and pays about $1.5 billion to the government in taxes.

Allow Fermilab about one-fifth of the credit for the technology that created MRI — and credit for generating one-fifth of the taxes the industry pays, or $300 million. This one technological spin-off from basic research more than covers Fermilab’s $200 million annual operating budget.

“The biggest revolutions come as surprises,” he says. “We need to encourage curiosity, which increases the knowledge base, and to get away from this hysterical emphasis on working on things that have short-term results.”

Chicago Sun-Times 05/01/94