Physicist Responsible for the ‘God Particle’ Dies at 96 Years Old

Leon Lederman sold off his Nobel Prize medal for over $765,000 in order to pay for medical expenses, his family explained.

Physicist Responsible for the ‘God Particle’ Dies at 96 Years Old
Leon Lederman in May 2007 FNAL via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Leon Lederman, the man responsible for establishing the chase to find the God Particle, died. He was 96 years old.

The University of Chicago -- the school where he worked -- made the announcement. According to reports, Lederman suffered from dementia. To try and afford treatment options, he sold his Nobel Prize gold medal for roughly $765,000 to pay for the costs of treatment.

Ellen Carr Lederman, his wife of 37 years, told the Associated Press he died in a nursing home in Rexburg, Idaho; the couple often vacationed there together. She said his legacy will continue.

“What he really loved was people, trying to educate them and help them understand what they were doing in science,” she said.

Life and early career

The New York City native was the son of a landryman and Jewish immigrants from Ukraine.

Lederman had a storied career of revolutionary successes in studying particle physics. He established a career largely unheard of in the volume of its successes.

Lederman completed high school in New York City and then earned his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1943. He joined the US Army shortly after. It was while he was in the army that he discovered the urge to become a physicist. He served for three years during World War II, and played a role in developing the Doppler radar.

“It was a cruel blow when I got caught speeding years later with a Doppler radar gun,” Dr. Lederman told Smithsonian magazine in 1993, “and the judge didn’t care when I explained that I’d helped create the thing.”

He earned a doctorate from Columbia University in 1961.

The experimental physicist played a key role in understanding neutrinos and quarks -- two subatomic particles that enhanced physicists’ understanding of how matter is composed. His research was later added into the Standard Model theory that describes basic particles and their forces.

Physics

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Lederman was Director Emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory(Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. He founded the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, in Aurora, Illinois in 1986, and was Resident Scholar Emeritus there from 2012 until his death

“His work was imaginative,” Edward “Rocky” Kolb, a University of Chicago astrophysicist, said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Occasionally, people are lucky. But several times he made major discoveries, and when that happens, it’s more than luck.”

The God Particle

Lederman’s most famous contribution is his research surrounding the Higgs boson, or as he called it “the God particle.” He published a book detailing his ideas in 1993, just a few years after winning the Nobel Prize. That book laid the groundwork for the scientists who discovered the Higgs boson in 2012.

The title of the book alone intrigued and polarized physicists who disagreed with Lederman’s decision to bring God into science. However, in subsequent interviews, Lederman and his co-author Dick Teresi explained they didn’t expect for the publisher to approve of the title initially. They kept the God particle involved in the title, and it’s been a critical conversation among physicists ever since.

“He made extraordinary contributions to our understanding of the basic forces and particles of nature,” Michael Turner, a professor at the University of Chicago, said in a statement to the Associated Press. “But he was also a leader far ahead of his time in science education, in serving as an ambassador for science around the world, and transferring benefits of basic research to the national good.”