Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, June 28, 2002  |  Number 11
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Lederman at 80

Future of the field calls for charisma and courage

by Kurt Riesselmann

When Leon Lederman surveys particle physics from the vantage point of his ninth decade, he sees a field challenged to translate the excitement of future discoveries into the means and finances to make those discoveries happen.

Mary Cullen has been the Director’s Aide for three Fermilab directors: Mike Witherell (1999-present), Leon Lederman (1978-1989) and John Peoples (1989-1999). “Particle physics suffers more from being infected by the socio-political mood of the day than from lack of spectacular opportunities for major and profound discoveries,” said Lederman, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday. “ I can’t remember a time—and I go back to Democritos— when the prospects were as clear. For this, some credit goes to our close and mutually profitable connections to astrophysics. But, we must play our cards right, we must seek out our most charismatic spokespersons and, above all, each of us must draw courage and confidence from the incandescent glory of our heritage and from the fascinations of the work we must do.”

The 1988 Nobel Laureate is still very much involved in science and education policy. In addition to serving on many advisory boards, Lederman is a member of the physics department at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and is resident scholar of the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a state-run residential high school he helped to found.

Tita Jensen, Chez Léon chef for 23 years, surprised Lederman with an extra-large cake. “At IIT, I mainly encourage the new HEP group under Dan Kaplan, which is not only involved in three important Fermilab experiments but has taken a strong leadership role in helping Fermilab with accelerator problems and R&D,” said Lederman. “At IMSA, I bring very innovative thinkers to interact with the students. Nobel types, Poets Laureate, business tycoons, astrophysicists, military leaders. Also, we do unusual projects like the book that fifteen students wrote: ‘Portraits of Great American Scientists,’ which presents biographies of fifteen renowned scientists.”

Science education has become a prime focus of his activities. Lederman, who was Fermilab director from 1978 to 1989, has played a key role in establishing Fermilab’s education resources, including raising financial support.

“When Leon came to Fermilab, he was frustrated that there wasn’t a teaching opportunity,” said Marge Bardeen, who is the head of Fermilab’s education department. “So he created one. He started Saturday Morning Physics to teach students.

“He was surprised to see that teachers came along, and so he decided that the lab could do something for them. He had this idea how we could make the resources of the lab available to K-12. He really plowed into this, as you would do to learn a new scientific field.”

Leon Lederman, facing the heroic task of blowing out 80 candles. (He did just fine!) Today, the staff of Fermilab’s Lederman Science Education Center and the education department train and work with six to seven thousand teachers every year. And about 150 high schools across the country, including IMSA, have started teaching science in a physics-chemistry-biology sequence, an idea heavily promoted by Lederman.

“It isn’t that nobody ever looked at this before,” Bardeen said. “But Leon has become a focus for people who are interested in this approach. He is out there promoting the idea and organizing support. And Leon having a Nobel Prize certainly helps. He’s able to bring people together. He calls and gets people to meet.”

Lederman has given talks around the country to convince education experts and school boards that high school science education should begin with physics and eventually lead up to the most complex field, biology. Physics is the conceptual underpinning to the study of systems in many other fields. Starting with classes in physics exposes students early on to concepts such as atoms and electricity, which are, for example, necessary to explain chemical reactions and communication among biological cells.

“I am working hard on changing the current high school science curricula...trying to dump the one hundred year old biology-chemistry-physics sequence,” Lederman said. “If you think finding the Higgs particle is hard...”

On the Web:
Leon Lederman, Director 1978 to 1989

The Lederman Science Center

The 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics

last modified 6/28/2002   email Fermilab