Monday, June 01, 2015

Leon Lederman sells his Nobel prize

Mentions dementia; receives $765,002

Half a year ago, James DNA Watson sold his 1962 Nobel prize to the Russian telecoms tycoon Alisher Usmanov for $4 million (RFE). Usmanov found a creative application for the medal: he donated it back to Watson. ;-)

One can't see into Watson's head but it was probably due to a combination of his increased need to get some money; and the decreased prestige that was apparently coming from that most well-deserved biology Nobel prize due to the harassment by the politically correct brownshirts.

Now, The Daily Mail and etc. tell us that Leon Lederman became the second living person in the history who sold the prize at auction (eight other Nobel prizes were sold after the recipient died). He received $765,002 for his 1988 Nobel prize in physics that he had shared with Schwartz and Steinberger for their discovery of the muon neutrino.

Lederman is 92 and he and his wife made the decision together after he received his diagnosis of dementia. The idea is that he may need the money for the medical bills now – I wish him good luck with that. Also, my understanding is that he only sold the medal now, the cash wasn't auctioned. He had spent the money to buy a vacation home in Driggs, Idaho, where he's been living permanently for years.

Leon Lederman is known as the author of the term "God Particle" – actually coined by an editor who found "Goddamn Particle" too long. It was chosen as a title of his 1993 book promoting particle physics and the Superconducting Supercollider – that was killed just months later. In 1976, his E288 collaboration "discovered" Oops-Leon, too. It was a non-existent 6 GeV particle seen as a resonance decaying to the electron-positron pair.

That "discovery" was a fluke – one with less than two-sigma significance which wouldn't be considered enough later. (It's actually surprising to me that the required confidence level was so low in this "nearly golden era" of particle physics.) However, the discovery wasn't "complete nonsense". Quite on the contrary, the coming events showed that Lederman knew very well what kind of stuff may be expected to be discovered. Just a year later, in 1977, Lederman's E288 collaboration discovered a genuine particle that was almost the same, \(\Upsilon\) (Upsilon), which is a 9.5 GeV bound state of bottom and antibottom. The name was reused from the previous "discovery".

What would you say that is the actual value of the Nobel medal? I think that Lederman will never be replaced in the history textbooks and the minds of experts – so he has sold "just" the physical medal. He's showed it to everyone whom he knows and who wanted to see it. At some point, it is just a piece of a metal whose shape is generally known. From this viewpoint, $765,002 is a lot of money for 200 grams of (not the purest) gold. The normal commodity price of this amount of gold is about $4,000 now, I guess.

I am convinced that both Watson and Lederman are "much stronger than average" Nobel prize winners. It's probably more likely for such winners to sell the medal – in other words, the fact that the Nobel prize sellers are such prominent winners is probably not a coincidence. Those whose contributions to science were less important and who are less famous are probably more proud about the medal that they "barely" received. ;-)

Before he and his wife had the idea to sell the medal, he was making living from the fees from the beggars, homeless men, and pedestrians on the street who wanted to learn some particle physics while the Nobel medal was used as a toy for little kids.

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