So-so Student, Nobel Prize-Winner
Particle physicist Leon Lederman credits dedication and imagination for his success., INTERVIEW
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Equally important, says Lederman, is imagination. ``A lot of people are tremendously insightful - they have mathematical abilities, they have analytical abilities. They're super students. But there must be something else, because I don't have any of those, and I'm successful.''Skip to next paragraph
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By imagination, he says, he means the ability to say, ```look, there are 500 bright guys looking at the same problem you're looking at. Since it's still a problem, not one of those guys has gotten it. Therefore this problem must have some side to it that none of those 500 guys has seen. What could it be? I know we're going to solve this problem within the next ten years, so why can't I do it tonight?'
``I think it's not only the ability but almost the preference for thinking unconventionally - and trying hard to identify with the little kid who said the emperor has no clothes.''
In addition, Lederman feels it's important for today's scientist to be ``a people person.'' In the kind of experiments conducted at Fermilab, ``you need these large collaborations - and it's helpful if you're a social person. You get more out of it.''
That sort of sociability also helps broaden scientists beyond their basic field - an important part of modern science. ``You need to keep in touch with many of the contiguous fields,'' he says, ``because you never know when a good idea will come out that you can apply.''
Are these qualities of dedication, imagination, sociability, and breadth being taught to today's students?
Lederman, who teaches at the University of Chicago and spends a good deal of his time working with the Chicago public schools, worries that the nation's schools are in ``total disarray.'' A good education system, he says, ``takes a lot of political will. I'm worried that we react much more to bank failures than we do to school failures. With the bank failures, we come up with the money.
``With the school failures, we come up with conferences.''
Where is particle physics headed in the next century? Combining with early-universe cosmologists in their investigations of the origins of the universe, particle physicists are coming close to some final solutions in defining the yet-to-be-discovered ``Theory of Everything.''
``I lived through four generations of new accelerators, and for the first time we can say that [particle physics is] no longer an endless frontier. We're closing a gap. I think it's in principle possible that somebody will someday write down this Theory of Everything - it already has a name, which is dangerous - which will say, `Yes, the Big Bang was the consequence of the laws of physics. There was this vacuum, and it had to explode because the laws of physics said it had to explode, and out of this explosion came the creation of all of this matter and energy.'''
He admits, however, that the complexity might be ``vastly more than we can possibly imagine - that God is out there somewhere, and She's not going to let us find out about it too easily.''
Meanwhile, the thrill of scientific discovery is still part of Lederman's experience. ``When you know something that you're the only one to know - and there are 4 or 5 billion people on the planet, and it's so profound that it will affect all of their lives at some point - that's something science can do. And there's nothing else I know of that can do that.''
`INSIDE THE SCIENCES' Nov. 6 Botanist Peter Raven Nov. 13 Biologist Lee Hood Nov. 20 Physicist Shirley Jackson Nov. 27 Archaeologist Robert Adams Dec. 4 Astronomer Sidney Wolff Dec. 11 Chemist Mark Wrighton Dec. 18 Particle physicist Leon Lederman Dec. 22 (Fri.) Space scientist James Van Allen Dec. 29 (Fri.) Conclusion: Science in the 21st century