Leon Lederman, Nobelist Who Coined ‘God Particle,’ Dies at 96

(Bloomberg) -- Leon Lederman, the U.S. physicist who won the Nobel Prize for co-discovering one of the universe’s subatomic building blocks before coining the term “God particle” to describe the mechanism that gives mass to matter, has died. He was 96.

He died Wednesday in Rexburg, Idaho, according to the website of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, where he had once served as director.

Leon Lederman, Nobelist Who Coined ‘God Particle,’ Dies at 96

Lederman shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics with Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger for detecting the muon neutrino, a previously unknown member of the lepton family of particles. At Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York, they used a high-energy accelerator to produce a beam of neutrinos, which can create muons and electrons on interaction with matter.

The discovery in 1962 helped build on the so-called Standard Model, which explains how subatomic components interact with invisible fields to gain mass. The model was complete when scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research announced in 2012 that they had detected the Higgs boson, named after U.K. physicist Peter Higgs. In 2013, Higgs shared the Nobel Prize with Francois Englert for proposing the existence of a matter-forming field that produces the boson particle.

“How can we have our colleagues in chemistry, medicine, and especially literature share with us, not the cleverness of our research, but the beauty of the intellectual edifice, of which our experiment is but one brick?” Lederman said in his Nobel banquet speech.

Scientists’ Dilemma

“This is a dilemma and an anguish for all scientists because the public understanding of science is no longer a luxury of cultural engagement, but it is an essential requirement for survival in our increasingly technological age,” he said.

Lederman was the co-author, with Dick Teresi, of the 1993 popular science book “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” on particle physics and the Higgs boson. The title, which Lederman said was chosen by the publisher, merely served as “a metaphor for nature” and it was more philosophical than theological, he said. The term was later adopted in the media as a synonym for the Higgs boson.

Leon Max Lederman was born on July 15, 1922, in New York to Morris Lederman, a laundryman, and Minna Rosenberg, both of whom were immigrants from Russia. He also had a brother, Paul, who was six years older.

Lederman attended James Monroe High School in the Bronx borough before earning a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at City College of New York in 1943.

Columbia Professor

After three years in the U.S. Army, where he reached the rank of second lieutenant, he earned a doctorate in physics at Columbia University in 1951. His affiliation with Columbia lasted 33 years, and he was a professor there until 1979, according to his profile on the Nobel website.

In 1989, he retired as director of the Fermilab, where he had headed a team that discovered the bottom quark, one of the six types of the elementary quark particle, in 1977. Lederman then became a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and participated in a program to retrain 20,000 teachers in Chicago’s public schools to teach science and mathematics.

“He believed that every young person deserved an education and began to notice that many elementary and high schools were not fulfilling that obligation when it came to science,” Alfred B. Bortz wrote in “Physics: Decade by Decade” (2007).

Lederman was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1965 and Israel’s Wolf Prize in Physics in 1982. His other books included “From Quarks to the Cosmos” (1989), written with David N. Schramm, “Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe” (2004), with Christopher T. Hill, and “Quantum Physics for Poets” (2011), also with Hill.

“If you ever want to do anything in the way of education, for example, or science policy, where you want to change laws or move people to be active, boy then, having a Nobel Prize helps a lot,” he said in a 1992 interview with the American Academy of Achievement. “You get into places that normally would be very difficult to get into.”

With his first wife, Florence Gordon, he had three children: Rena, Jesse and Rachel. He lived with his second wife, Ellen Carr Lederman.

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