Conversations With Outstanding Americans: Leon Lederman

From the subatomic world of particles and forces to the urban classrooms of Chicago, Nobel prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman has used a hands-on approach to help unlock everything from secrets of matter to children's curiosity about nature.

Chicago's version of Silicon Valley stretches along Interstate 80 as it leaves the Windy City. Reflected sunlight bursts off the legions of glass-encased high-tech firms that line the highway.

Nearby, sweeping upward like a pair of hands pressed together in prayer, stands the main building of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Dedicated to probing the secrets of matter, the facility testifies to a nation's 50-year investment in science that made many of I-80's businesses possible.

This relationship plays much on the mind of the lab's director emeritus, Leon Lederman.

Seldom has the nation's scientific enterprise been more fruitful and dynamic. Yet seldom have its long-term prospects appeared more threatened - and with them, a cultural vitality that Dr. Lederman says a vigorous science effort brings to a democracy.

Sitting in an alcove off the vaulting atrium inside Fermilab's headquarters, Lederman gives an enthusiastic summary of cutting-edge fields.

"If you go around the labs and read Scientific American, you see that science itself has never been more exciting," he says. "In physics, we're hot after some kind of resolution of the problem of complexity in the microworld. In biology, which probably has replaced physics as the dominant subject during the second half of the 20th century, many things are happening. The recent discovery of indicators of microbial life on Mars is very exciting, and astronomers are doing fascinating things" to explain the origin and evolution of the universe.

Spinoffs from this work range from lasers and microchips to composite materials for aircraft and racing yachts.

Yet, Lederman warns, cracks are appearing in the network of corporate and federal labs that are key to these advances.

"The trends? You see them everywhere," he says. "Company after company that made its wealth in science is retreating. Visit Bell Labs. It's down to 30 to 40 percent of what it was. It's the same story for Du Pont and for many, many other companies. Universities in general are downsizing. And federal support for research, especially for so-called basic research, has not kept pace with inflation."

Last month, a National Academy of Sciences panel took a look at Uncle Sam's research-checkbook register. It noted that in the past three years, federal spending on science and technology research has fallen by 5 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Were it not for congressional largess for the National Institutes of Health, which underwrites the lion's share of medical research in the United States, federal spending for sci-tech research would have dropped by nearly 10 percent after inflation.

"To keep a vigorous research program, you have to do more than keep up with inflation," Lederman says. "You solve a problem today, but the next problem gets harder, requires more resources, more time, and gets more expensive. But it pays for itself. Maybe my reading of economics is selective, but the record of investment in research is fantastic. Look at our GNP now and see how it's dependent on research done during the past 50 years - a huge fraction of our GNP would be colored in."

Vigorous research efforts

For the better part of 45 years, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist has contributed to that vigor.

Born in New York City shortly after Babe Ruth began blasting home runs for the Yankees, Lederman's interest during high school and early college focused on chemistry.

"I gradually shifted toward physics, which seemed cleaner - odorless, in fact. I was strongly influenced, too, by the kids in physics, who were funnier and played better basketball," he writes in his 1993 book "The God Particle."

He entered the field of high-energy physics after a stint in the Army and earned his PhD from Columbia University in 1948. The questions physicists asked about atoms at the time required atom smashers only a few inches in diameter to extract answers, he recalls. Today, scientists require particle accelerators whose diameters are measured in miles.

Over that time, he says, the role of science in policymaking has changed markedly.

"My teachers, who came of age during World War ll, strolled the corridors of power with a vision and a loud voice. They were heard."

He recalls attending an Atoms for Peace meeting in Geneva with his mentor, Columbia physicist and Nobel-winner Isador Rabi. "After a particular session, I went back outside with him to his hotel. There were little coffee tables around the outside of the hotel, and everybody called: 'Hey, Rabi, come over here.' He took me aside and said 'Over there is the corporation president and over there is a congressman and a senator.' He kept asking: 'Where should we sit?'

"That has diminished enormously. Today, scientists are not heard on the national scene, except as a noise level: 'Give us more money.' Scientists hate to be included as a kind of 'gimme' group or a lobby for the well-being of scientists. That's why it's hard to get them out there. But the argument is not so much that you want to improve the condition of scientists, but that science is needed in many ways. It has a way of thinking, it has a style of skepticism, passion, an affection for beauty and symmetry. It's a valuable culture that can spread out way beyond science itself."

But it remains an isolated culture, he continues. "You go out of your laboratory, and you are excited. You've really done something interesting. And on the way home you stop at the cleaners and stop at the grocery store, and you want to tell people what you've done. You can't."

Weak science education

The reason, he suggests, is that they won't understand because the science education in the United States hasn't prepared them to understand. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, he says, great strides were made in improving science education for students seeking careers in science. But only in the last few years, as technology's tendrils have tightened their grip in the workplace, have educators begun to focus on more meaningful science education for everyone.

Lederman worries that an absence of that kind of education leaves the public vulnerable to influences that "represent a real threat to a 500-year-old commitment to what we call the Enlightenment."

Perhaps the most pernicious influence is radical fundamentalism, which he says can take many forms and offers absolute answers to fill the uncertainties inherent in science.

This fundamentalism, he continues, can often cloak itself in clerics' robes. "It's in Afghanistan. Algeria's on the edge. They are falling to radical fundamentalism that brooks no compromise. It's in Israel in the settlers and outside abortion clinics. Here it's lumped into the religious right. Maybe our religious right is a little kinder, gentler than the Taliban [Afghanistan's fundamentalist leaders]. Maybe they're also constrained, and if they had their way, they'd exert the same kind of discipline."

"One has to accommodate to the uncertainties" of science, he says. "That's the unfair competition between science and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism says: 'Trust me, I know the answer.' Scientists will be wishy-washy and say: Well, this is what we think it's going to be like, but watch my error bars. That's the nature of science."

TV and films also can lend false color to the public's view of scientists.

"The networks generally do a poor job [of representing science] or they ignore it," he says. "And Hollywood? It's the 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids' nerd-like thing or worse. Somebody did an analysis that said scientists on TV and in the movies have killed more people than Genghis Khan. You know, 'Tomorrow, ve vill destroy ze vorld!' "

Lederman certainly resists the notion of portraying scientists as saints. "They're not," he adds. "They span a spectrum." He submits, however, that Hollywood could do a better job of portraying the skepticism, freedom, and especially the uncertainties that underlie any scientific discovery.

A final influence on popular thought, he says, are claims of the paranormal - the increase in psychics, people who say they've been abducted by aliens, people who sell pyramids purported to focus "energies." And they are aided by TV networks that feature shows that dwell on these themes.

They are aided by TV networks that feature shows that dwell on these themes.

"People without a good solid foundation in scientific thinking get sold on these things," he observes. All the more reason, he holds, to improve the quality of science education for everyone, not just for elite students.

This led him and some colleagues six years ago to try to upgrade the quality of science teaching in Chicago's elementary schools. They were also driven by a desire to use science to help the local community in a visible way that broke down cultural barriers between scientists and the public.

"Take any social problem, trace it back to its roots, and you'll always get back to education," Lederman explains. "Gingerly, we said: We know there are a lot of problems that have to do with home life, dangerous streets, gang-and-drug obstacles, crumbling schools. All these are above our salary level. But teaching teachers how to teach science is something we felt we could do.

"Somehow in Chicago, despite all the hazards and difficulties, 400,000 kids straggle into school every morning. We said: Suppose we can make these [science] teachers so vibrant, so exciting, and get the kids so caught up in the excitement and play aspects and joy of being in school, that maybe they'll even sit through geography and history because science is there.

"Maybe we can reactivate the excitement of teaching history, too," he adds, growing more animated. Then, as if talking to an imaginary history teacher he intones: "Incidentally, don't forget Michael Faraday [a 19th-century British scientist known for his work in electricity and magnetism] when you review the kings of England, because he had more influence on how people live ... than all the kings of England rolled into one!" With that, he and his colleagues established the Teachers' Academy of Mathematics and Science in Chicago.

"There are teachers who desperately want to be better teachers, but they were never trained to teach math and science. These are generalists in all subjects and they teach primary school," he says.

Funding for the program remains a challenge, in part because agencies want "head counts," he says. "How many teachers did you train last year?" A better indicator would be test scores. "At about 45 of the poorest schools in Chicago, standardized test scores are beginning to catch up" with the rest of the city. "They started way behind," he says.

It remains to be seen whether those scores will level off, their trajectory flattened by the problems that Lederman says are above his salary level. "It's an interactive process. The more kids that get through the system, the easier the other problems become," he continues. "Escape becomes possible."

Reforming science and math education will benefit society and science itself, Lederman says.

"The whole business about the dark side of technology, the environmental implications, the kind of soullessness that can come from mechanization, all these things need to be addressed sensitively.

"I warn scientists that public understanding of science doesn't necessarily translate into public support of science. You're going to get criticism. But that's the kind of criticism that the scientific community wants - informed criticism."

Some of those critics suggest that humanity may be coming the end of science, as researchers struggle to home in on the single equation that represents the unification of the fundamental forces of nature - a so-called theory of everything.

To him and many colleagues, that's nonsense.

"Say a kid asks any question of science: Why is your hair white? And the kid is a Dennis the Menace. Why white? Pigmentation. Why pigmentation? You go into chemistry for a while. But why do two molecules attract each other? Then you go into ... quarks and leptons. You can't go the other way. If we knew everything there was to know about forces, we probably would never predict the properties of a diamond, not to mention of people. [But we] don't have the capacity to go that way."

That, he suggests, leaves a lot to be studied and explained. "Newton had a metaphor: It's as if we're children playing in the surf, finding shiny pebbles, while the sea is vast ocean of [our] ignorance.

"We're still playing on the edge of it."


On the cold war ...

'During the cold war, no [scientific] effort was too expensive. Here I was, working at these absolutely useless quarks and leptons for the last 30 years, and I'm told I was part of the cold war. Listening to scientists was an aspect of the cold war. Now that we don't have the cold war, you'd think that the huge resources would be released to let science go and [the country could] reap the benefits. But that's not happening.'

On education ...

'Look around the Chicago schools and you see that 60 percent of the teachers are minority. They stayed in school. Their kids are much better off than the kids they're teaching. Education works! It's a lifeline out of a trap of gangs, drugs, crime, no jobs, [and] teenage pregnancy.'

On technology ...

'In some ways we're addicted to technology, and technology is changing our lives....Someone throws a rock in Ulan Bator and the Amazon knows it almost before the rock lands. That's unsettling. To many people, technology is disturbing. People who have a scientific way of thinking and a good K-12 education would be able to accommodate to the change and say: This is an opportunity; it empowers us.'

On technology...

"In some ways we're addicted to technology, and technology is changing our lives....Someone throws a rock in Ulan Bator and the Amazon knows it almost before the rock lands. That's unsettling. To many people, technology is disturbing. People who have a scientific way of thinking and a good K-12 education would be able to accommodate to the change and say: This is an opportunity; it empowers us."

On public support...

"I warn scientists that public understanding of science doesn't necessarily translate into public support of science. You're going to get criticism. If you want public understanding and communication, it's a two-way thing. You've got to listen as well as teach, learn as well as teach."

The Story of Leon

When asked for material that would tell visitors at Fermilab's science education center about the high points of his life, Leon Lederman drew an illustration. Dubbed the "Story of Leon," he accompanied the drawings with the following tale:

"I distinctly recall my awesome skill at learning the physics that children, age 0 to 6 years, need to negotiate in the complex world, e.g. to walk upright and get milk out of a bottle (1). Fortunately, the necessary chemistry and biology came naturally. Applying the skill later to "little league" and other related institutions designed to torture pre-teenagers was much less successful (2). It was more fun to dip Alice's blonde hair in the inkwell provided on all our school desks. (3) How else to show my undying love? My school work was exemplary but required long hours of study until very late at night (4, 5). This led to laboratory research. The oscilloscope was my essential companion as we designed electronics for our experiment (6). Then there was teaching and the pride of a growing number of graduating students (7, 8). Finally the time came to relax, ride horses, ski, and grow old gracefully (9-11)."

Other milestones in the life of Leon Lederman

He was born on July 15, 1922, in New York City, where he attended public schools and later City College of New York.

After a three-year stint in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, Leon Lederman earned his doctorate at Columbia University in 1951, where he taught for 28 years and directed the University's Nevis Laboratory.

In 1950, he had the rare privilege and high honor of helping the lab save face when President Eisenhower dedicated the facility.

At one point in the ceremony, Eisenhower flipped a switch to activate the lab's new atom smasher, Dr. Lederman recalls in his 1993 book, "The God Particle." As planned, loudspeakers emitted the telltale "cheeps" of a Geiger counter for all to hear, indicating that the cyclotron was active. Except it wasn't. The much ballyhooed atom smasher had picked that moment to "crash." Lederman was coaxing the cheeps out of the Geiger counter by holding it near a radioactive source.

During his years as an experimental physicist, he discovered or shared in the discovery of several subatomic particles and their properties. He also initiated and served as a founding member of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, which advises the federal government on major physics research projects.

In 1983, he won the Wolf Prize for discovering the bottom quark, one of a dozen particles that in the proper combinations can form anything "from chicken soup to neutron stars."

Five years later, he shared the Nobel Prize in physics with two colleagues for discovering the second of three types of neutrinos, nailing down the notion that the zoo of subatomic particles physicists have discovered come in distinct "families." The experiment also gave subsequent researchers a new tool - a setup to create beams of neutrinos at will.

As Fermilab's second director (1979-1989) he became a founding trustee of the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., the first statewide residential public school for gifted children. And Lederman is co-chairman of the board of trustees for the Teachers' Academy of Mathematics and Science in Chicago, which he helped found with Chicago-area colleagues in 1991.

The academy helps train public-school teachers to teach science. He still teaches an introductory course in physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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