Former Illinois Institute of Technology Pritzker Professor of Physics Leon M. Lederman, who died on October 3 at the age of 96, is being remembered for notable global accomplishments in subatomic science, including his idea for a United States national accelerator laboratory, which later became Fermilab, and his 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for breakthrough discoveries in neutrino research (along with colleagues Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger). But perhaps Lederman would be most proud of his efforts to promote general public science literacy and enkindle a passion for science among youth.
Asked to present the 2007 Henry Townley Heald Award at a celebratory event to then Illinois Tech President Lew Collens for his transformational work at the university, Lederman, himself a Heald Award recipient, took the opportunity to speak about his own passion and the contributions of Illinois Tech.
“What’s really impressive about this evening to me is, I’m sure most of you are aware that we are passing through a national crisis in the failure of our national educational system to educate pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students and attract them to the study of mathematics, engineering, and science, such as that offered at IIT,” said Lederman. “For that reason, I’m especially pleased to be asked to present the Heald Award to Lew. We [at the university] have an international presence and that’s very important. It’s very important to me that we keep our attention focused on Chicago, on the United States, but also on the world because we’re connected together. Whether we like it or not, by ecology and economics, the whole system we have depends so much on the kinds of things that IIT emphasizes.”
To help address the issues of science education in American schools, Lederman established the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a competitive residence public school, in 1985, and also founded and chaired the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science. As director of Fermilab from 1978 to 1989, Lederman established the longtime Saturday Morning Physics program, where Chicago-area students learned about particle physics and other research topics from prominent scientists.
Lederman’s own education began at City College of New York, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry; he then graduated from Columbia University with his master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics. He joined the faculty at Columbia and stayed for some 30 years, doing particle investigations that led to his Nobel Prize. In 1977 Lederman was at Fermilab and led the team that discovered the “bottom quark” subatomic particle. Under his directorship, the Tevatron superconducting accelerator opened, which helped place Fermilab into a global leadership position in accelerator and neutrino research.
After leaving Fermilab, Lederman joined the faculty of the University of Chicago and served on Illinois Tech’s faculty from 1992 until his retirement in 2011. He also served as chair of the State of Illinois Governor’s Science Advisory Committee and held memberships in other science organizations. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Lederman received other stellar awards, including the National Medal of Science (1965), the Elliot Creeson Medal (1972), the Wolf Prize (1982), the Enrico Fermi Award (1992), and the Vannevar Bush Award (2012). He contributed more than 200 articles and coined the term “God particle” (as “a metaphor for nature,” Lederman said, in an interview with the Nobel Prize Organisation) for the elusive Higgs boson, which became the title of his book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?
“The whole Illinois Tech community is saddened by the loss of former Pritzker Professor of Science Leon Lederman,” says Illinois Tech President Alan W. Cramb. “His work, both as a scholar and as a teacher, has exemplified the joyful discovery at the root of all scientific endeavors. We are grateful for his considerable scholarly contributions, but, just as much, for his example and legacy as a fellow community member.”
Lederman is survived by Ellen Lederman, his wife of 37 years, and three children from his first marriage to the late Florence Gordon.