So-so Student, Nobel Prize-Winner
Particle physicist Leon Lederman credits dedication and imagination for his success., INTERVIEW
BATAVIA, ILL. — 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.
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.''
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.''
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