Benjamin W. Lee
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About Benjamin W. Lee

Widely regarded as one of the world's leading physicists working on the theory of elementary particles, Benjamin W. Lee led the theoretical physics department at Fermilab from 1973 until his tragic death in an automobile accident in 1977. In the last six months of life, Lee was in the midst of a period of enormous creativity. He explored the problems of CP violation, of lepton-number nonconservation, and of the high-energy limit of weak interactions in gauge theories, formulated a theory based on the enlarged gauge group SU(3)⊗U(1), and was just beginning a program of research on cosmology.

Born in Seoul, Korea in 1935, Lee came to the United States as a student, receiving his BS degree from Miami University of Ohio in 1956. His graduate work was at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received the MS degree in 1958, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked under the direction of Abraham Klein, receiving the PhD degree in 1960. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1968. After several years at Pennsylvania and at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in 1966 Lee accepted a professorship at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Lee had one of the broadest ranges of research interests of any physicist of his generation, but he returned again and again to the study of symmetry principles and the weak interactions. He played a leading role in the development and applications of current algebra and phenomenological Lagrangians, culminating in the publication of his 1972 monograph on Chiral Dynamics. Lee turned in the early 1970s to the fundamental problem of the renormalization of theories with spontaneously broken symmetry, such as the σ model, and developed ideas and techniques that were to serve him well in his later work on gauge theories.

Lee's involvement with gauge theories dated back to 1964. He was concerned that superconductors appear to provide a counterexample to the general theorem that requires massless spin-zero bosons to accompany spontaneous symmetry breaking. With Klein, he wrote an article suggesting that a similar phenomenon might occur in relativistic theories. It was soon realized that this is indeed the case, provided the broken symmetry is a gauge symmetry, as it is in a superconductor. In 1971, after it had been shown by functional methods that spontaneously broken gauge theories are renormalizable, Lee developed a proof by operator methods. In the following year, Lee and Jean Zinn-Justin completed the demonstration that renormalization does not spoil the cancellation of unphysical singularities in these theories.

He also made major contributions to unified theories of the weak and electromagnetic interactions. Spurred by the discovery of neutral currents in 1973, Lee along with Mary K. Gaillard and Jonathan L. Rosner undertook a systematic survey of the experimental signatures of charmed mesons and baryons. Their report was circulated shortly before the discovery in November 1974 of the J/Ψ particle, and immediately became the guidebook for subsequent experimental work. Even before the discovery of the J/Ψ, Lee and Gaillard had used gauge-theory calculations of the KL - KS mass difference and the KL→ γγ decay rate to argue that the charm-quark mass would have to be about 1.5 GeV or less, a prediction strikingly confirmed by the observed mass of the J/Ψ.

Ben Lee's decision to move permanently to Fermilab was a declaration of his faith in the laboratory and of his recognition of unity of theory and experiment. His brilliance, dedication, and deep understanding — not only of physics but of human nature — added immeasurably to the style and standards of a young laboratory. A wise and trusted counselor to many experimentalists, he attracted other outstanding people to the laboratory, and made of it a world center of theory as well as of experiment.

Adapted from the obituary by Chris Quigg and Steven Weinberg published in Physics Today 30, 76 (September 1977)