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So-so Student, Nobel Prize-Winner

Particle physicist Leon Lederman credits dedication and imagination for his success., INTERVIEW

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 1989


AS particle physicist Leon M. Lederman remembers it, he wasn't naturally good with his hands. As a youngster growing up in the Depression years in New York City, he wasn't all that curious about how things worked. He wasn't a very good student. He found math difficult. His first year as a graduate student in physics at Columbia University was terrible. So he applied to transfer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - and was refused. And then, in 1988, he shared the Nobel Prize in physics for his 1962 discovery of a second neutrino, an elementary subatomic particle.

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What got him launched and kept him going? In an interview in his office at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which he directed from 1979 until earlier this year, he points to the people who spurred him on.

Two things happened, he recalls, when he was 10 years old. First, one day when he was sick in bed, his father brought him a book co-authored by Albert Einstein about relativity. ``It started out comparing physics to a detective story,'' he says, ``and it was in big print. That's very important at ten years old.

``The other thing was a front-page article in the New York Times about the winning of the Nobel Prize by Carl Anderson for discovering the positron. It told how he took a cloud chamber to the top of a mountain. And that was the most romantic thing I could think of - to drag some instrument up there and see something.''

His brother, he says, never finished high school. But he was good with his hands and did a lot of home experimenting with a chemistry set. ``He used to get me to do the chores,'' Dr. Lederman recalls.

Later, during high school, Lederman began hanging around the chemistry lab with ``three or four friends'' after school. The lab assistant was ``a lively guy who let us fool around and blow glass.'' It was these friendships, more than any conceptual fascination, that kept his interest in science alive.

But it wasn't until graduate school - after finishing City College and spending three years in the Army - that he finally developed self-confidence as a budding scientist.

One day, he says, he came back to the laboratory after spending a few months studying for his qualifying exams, and ``there was a guy mopping the floor and singing in Italian, and I said, `Oh, a new janitor.' And as I came in he said something incomprehensible, and I said, `Yeah, but watch out for those wires - don't get 'em wet.'''

As it happened, the man was a visiting physics professor from Rome - part of the flood of scientists fleeing postwar Europe. Having just arrived, he was given directions to the lab, found it was dirty, and began cleaning it up. ``He was doing research in cosmic rays. And he was the first one who made me think that maybe I was not all that dumb.''

So if an innate gift for science is not essential, what are the qualities that make a scientist?

The first, says Lederman, is ``total dedication.'' Scientists need ``resistance to being discouraged,'' he says. ``You've got to be able to live through the low periods, of which there are many. You need a willingness to work hard and be single-minded - think about what you're doing while you're shaving. It's got to be able to obsess you completely, so that you're not interested in vacations or sleeping or eating or anything. Naturally at some point you've got to lift your head up. But you need to be able to go for three months or so with naps on cots and whatever food comes out of the coin machine.''