Thursday, October 04, 2018

Leon Lederman: 1922-2018

Leon Lederman was a giant of the 20th century experimental particle physics. Sadly, he died on Wednesday in a care center in Idaho, due to the complications from dementia (not so shocking at age of 96).

He was born to a Russian Jewish family in 1922. He was the key man in teams that discovered the neutral \(K\)-mesons (do you remember Feynman's discussion about the two-state Hilbert space of \(K^0\) and \(\bar K^0\) that may be mixed as the superpositions of long-lived and short-lived kaons?), the bottom quark \(b\), and the muon (i.e. second) neutrino.

For the muon neutrino discovery, he was given the 1988 Nobel prize in physics, along with two other men.

Lederman was a charming guy who was always a neverending fountain of jokes. As a professor, he has led 50 graduate students in some epoch – none of them went to jail, he bragged.

Also, Lederman was a crucial cheerleader for particle physics. He made the key promotion that allowed Ronald Reagan to plan and build the Tevatron (the room for superconducting magnets in an existing tunnel was reserved in 1981) – which discovered the top quark \(t\) in 1995. We might say that among the 6+6 lepton+quark (elementary fermions') flavors, he was rather fundamental in the discovery of 4 (one-third), namely \(s,b,\nu_\mu,t\).

Leon Lederman has been a huge proponent of physics education – and also the main guy behind the Physics First movement demanding that teenagers are first exposed to physics and then e.g. biology.

He was also a great popularizer. His book "The God Particle" described experimental particle physics and coined the laymen's most popular term for the Higgs boson. We often explain the name as saying that "it was the work by an editor" because Lederman originally wanted the title "The Goddamn Particle".

But it would be fake news – and some people promote the fake news – to say that Lederman found the references to religion unacceptable, like some others do. Instead, in one defense of his "The God Particle", he quoted quite a piece from Genesis, like here. These days, I find it obvious (but I already found it likely a decade ago) that the criticisms against the God Particle were driven by left-wing activists' efforts to make any references to religion etc. politically unacceptable within the Academia.

Some of his methods to promote physics were truly creative. A decade ago, he built a booth on the street and was answering physics questions posed by the pedestrians (literally) in Manhattan.

In 2015, Lederman became the second person who sold his Nobel Prize medal for $765,002. He may have needed some money for the treatment of his dementia that was just diagnosed.

However, even from a financial perspective, I think it was a good idea to sell the medal because its value is likely to drop in coming years. It seems that two days ago, the physics Nobel prize was finally hijacked by the identity politics activists and meritocratically oriented people will simply stop watching that award – I have stopped.

You know, it was announced by tons of media in advance that the newest winners "must" include a woman, and it seems that "they" found a laser team where it was possible. She was a 24-year-old accidental member of a team that did the Nobel work. On top of that, out of her less than 9,000 citations, 2/3 are from the papers co-written with Mr Mourou (who has had 30,000+ extra citations at other places) which signals that he, and not she, was the engine in their team. Needless to say, she's presented as a full-blown, if not the superior, winner by the media – but that's not what the hard data say.

Once you suspect that there may be political reasons behind some winners, the problem isn't even limited to the privileged groups such as women. Mr Mourou could have gotten his prize because of his proximity to a woman researcher, too. And there may be other reasons. Fortunately, one would need a lot of concentrated energy to roll in his grave – that's the only reason why Alfred Nobel isn't doing it right now. The last disciplines in which his prize had some meaning are being ruined, too.

But back to Lederman. He has lived in a different epoch when brilliant people living in the West could have been driven by genuine love for science and, without becoming slaves of any political movement, they could have done great things.

RIP Leon Lederman.

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