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Featured Scientist - Leon M. Lederman

From the Winter 2000 sciencelines

Dr. Leon M. Lederman is the director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the name sake of the Science Education Center at the Laboratory. His research, dedication, and personality are world-renowned and we are delighted to share this interview as a celebration of science for the new millennium.

What experiences do you remember most as a child that may have been the beginnings of an interest in science?

There were books in the house, and I remember in particular, a book by Einstein, with a collaborator, written for kids. It started out by saying that science is like a detective story. There are a lot of clues and the detective has to find some explanation for all the clues, some model, or theory that would explain all the clues and therefore let us understand the crime. That was impressive to me. I think it was called The Meaning of Relativity.

I also had a brother, six years older than me, who was very good with his hands and he liked to build things in the family basement. He was also interested in chemistry and had an elaborate chemistry set that was embellished with things that he'd bought at the local drug store. I would love to watch him do some experiments. I was always willing to do his family chores if he would let me watch him do these experiments.

There were teachers, in primary school, but mostly in high school who were significant and fellow students who seemed to be interested in science. For example, one of my friend's father was a chemistry teacher. Others somehow were more learned than I was and more interested in these scientific things than I was at the time. I thought they were very appealing people and in order to hang out with them, I did what they did. That was to pay attention to our studies.

Do you come from a science-oriented family?

No, not at all. They were immigrants and working hard to make sure that we would stay in school and have a good education.

How would you describe some of your high school experiences?

The high school was a few blocks from where we lived so I could walk there. It was a standard high school. The glamorous high school in New York was Stuyvesant. It was a math high school. The Bronx School of Mathematics and Science didn't exist then. We lived further out from the center of the city. There were a lot of bright kids in that high school and very good teachers who knew a lot of stuff.

I remember early on being attracted by, not the chemistry teacher, but the laboratory assistant. I think he was going to school at night and supporting himself by having this job at the high school. We had a small group of kids and he would teach us how to blow glass. We constructed a refrigerator made of glass, with a valve which we now know is a Jewel Thompson effect, in which an expanding gas causes cooling. That was the refrigeration principle. We learned a lot about that.

The teachers were very lively, and certainly they furthered my interest in the sciences - especially in chemistry.

Would you recount an exciting moment, scientific problem, event or breakthrough when you knew something important had occurred?

Usually these things happen for some curious reason at 3:00 a.m. in the morning when you're all alone, and suddenly you realize that the experiment you're working on may have profound first of all it may work. A lot of experiments don't work. So, the fact that an experiment works is something, and that it may work in such a way to lead to an important discovery is, of course, even more exciting.

I remember a graduate student was analyzing some data back at Columbia or Nevis, which was Columbia's laboratory. We were at Brookhaven Laboratory, in Long Island, where most of our research was being carried out. We got a call saying he had some very curious events he wanted us to look at. We rushed back to the Lab from Brookhaven and that was the time we recognized that the neutrino experiment was going to work. We had clear evidence for a neutrino collision producing a long track which we recognized as a muon indicating the first evidence that the neutrinos we were dealing with were a new kind of neutrino.

Sometimes you get very excited about an idea you have. It is very exciting to have this idea. It's going to lead to a fantastic experiment and you can't wait until you can talk it out with your colleagues. Then they point out that it's all wrong, and that happens often- more often than not.

Please tell us a little about the development or early days of education programs at Fermilab under your directorship.

I became director in 1979 and recognized that a director has to have something to do. The Lab itself was very well managed. I'm not even sure it needed a director. There were very good staff people. So, I needed an activity and I realized that the Lab was an enormous resource as far as teaching was concerned or just having young people in to look around and see all the things that were there. This idea occurred within months of my being director.
Even before that, I had been teaching for 30 years at Columbia and all of a sudden I wasn't teaching any more. That's like quitting teaching cold turkey. I found myself teaching staff people, meeting them in the hall and teaching them something­ it made them very nervous. And so, that set me to bringing in kids. So, we sat down and planned a ten-week curriculum and we wrote about 70 high schools around Fermilab.

We invited them to send juniors and seniors­-we said we'd take about 100 each session and we would do three sessions each year. They came on Saturdays and I taught them physics but on a lighthearted level, with lots of jokes and lots of arm waving. After the lectures they would break up into smaller groups and the postdocs would lead them on tours to various parts of the Laboratory. Eventually the postdocs themselves said, "We'd like to teach the kids." So, we compromised and I gave the first lecture and the postdocs took turns teaching the kids. After ten weeks we'd have a sort of mock graduation, invite the parents, give them coffee and cookies and each kid got a diploma that said that as far as we knew they were awake for the most part. Everybody enjoyed it. Certainly from the parents we know that the kids enjoyed it and talked a lot about it. That was Saturday Morning Physics and that was 1979. It's still going on­-20 years.
I see the students all over the country­-they'll come up to me to say they were in Saturday Morning Physics at Fermilab. We learned a lot. There were many kids and many reasons for them to come. Part of it was social, boys and girls coming and flirting with each other and having a good time. But among the 100 students that would come in a class, there'd be five or six or sometimes as many as ten who were enormously bright. Those kids were clearly frustrated, we thought, that all of this science was going on and they weren't a part of it and they weren't getting (to learn) very much of it.

That led us to inviting teachers to participate with us­-to listen to Saturday Morning Physics and then discuss it with us. From that we suddenly realized that the teachers themselves had a problem­-they really were not keeping up with the subject matter and not familiar enough with the subjects of science to make it exciting. That led us to the beginnings of Friends of Fermilab and a program of teaching teachers. We had summer institutes that we ran for many years until the funding ran out. We gave them a four-week course of what's going on in chemistry, physics, biology or mathematics­-what the exciting things were­-what the experiments are that the kids can do. That's when Marjorie Bardeen and Stanka Jovanovic organized us to become a more formalized program and non-profit organization to seek additional funding because so far we had been doing everything with no cost.

One special seminar was Topics in Modern Physics. It also had sort of a cult following because the people who attended it would meet from time to time and continue the discussions. We had a lot of Latin American teachers as part of that.
Then Friends of Fermilab organized the middle school work on Beauty and Charm. Then things really took off with ten or fifteen different programs going­-poster contests for third graders, teacher training in the summer, and lots of summer programs for kids, especially going into Chicago and getting minority kids to come out and participate in programs. Of course, there's also a long standing program for kids from historically black colleges. So, by that time we had a multiplication of programs. Secretary of Energy, Admiral Watkins, who was also fanatical about education came in and supported us very strongly. Then many other labs started copying what we were doing. It's been a very great activity, because, you drop pebbles in a pond and pebbles have a wave that spreads out. If you drop enough pebbles in you can get the whole pond to be covered with ripples of nice teaching.

What do you think/hope the new millennium will hold for science education?

I think all of the things Fermilab and all the other labs are doing are just a drop in the bucket. They're just anecdotes and if you look at what's happening to science education in America, the center of gravity hasn't moved much. The fact is that American kids are not learning science in high school. That's all there is to it. International exams show this, anecdotal evidence shows this.

We're just not rising to the extra level that I think science education requires. Not for future scientists, but for future citizens, which are people who are conducting their own lives in a new millennium-like world that's driven by science and technology that's exploding. Our language is changing. Our culture is changing. The whole structure of jobs is changing. It's true we're very prosperous now. But I think that prosperity is based on things that we've done in the past that have worked pretty well and are managed by a small component of the entire graduating classes of students. But if you look at the projections, they're very discouraging. The jobs that are giving us full employment are often very low-level service jobs that can and will be done by robots and computers. So, if students want to share in the prosperity, they're going to have to learn a lot more science in their high schools and in their technical schools and certainly junior colleges and colleges than they're learning now. All you have to do is talk to any CEO of a major company and they will tell you that the big problem is the low-level training of the work force.

For the average person to improve or maintain their scientific literacy, what fields of science should we expect to watch for the most advances? What do you recommend to people as sources?

You could make a list of new industries that are changing the way we live­-the driving engines. Certainly within the past decades you have to be impressed by the computer business and the explosive growth in the use of computers and its ultimate product that we call Internet and the Web that is changing everything. The Web in itself is a product of many technologies and many basic science breakthroughs. That's having a tremendous effect and the possibilities for the next decades are mind-boggling. Can you just imagine what you can do with computers if they were not just ten times faster than the fastest computers we have now, but a billion times faster-everything in that sense is up for change.

The other thing that's significant is software. About 20-25 years ago, software wasn't an industry. It was something you did to get a computer to work. Today it's the third largest industry from the point of view of contributions to the GNP that we have. Automobiles, electronics and software­-those are the top three. So, there's a dynamic in the economy, all of which is something people should know about because as our technologies start to promulgate, citizens are going to have to have a voice as to which technologies are fruitful and useful and beneficial and which technologies we should avoid.

We know already that hair sprays if you can call that a technology, are bad for the environment. Global warming is a serious issue which comes from human activity, so humans are going to have to have a voice if we're going to have a democratic society, and that requires some knowledge about how computers work and how science works in general. Biotechnology is another area that's changing the ethics and legalities of life on this planet. What are you going to do when it becomes possible to design your own child? Will they all be alike? Should we do that; Is it legal? Should it be legal? Will all children have blond hair, blue eyes, be six foot three and so on and so on. How do we preserve diversity when we can do so much in the way of controlling, literally controlling, human abilities and potentialities?

These are very hard problems that people should become familiar with­-the things we can't do and they should know that. There are limits to what science and technology can do. One should, again, be able to discuss this, be able to read papers in the Sunday supplements and the magazine articles and understand what happens if you look at Discovery channel and follow some of the debates about ethics and decisions such as making tobacco illegal. Isn't that a lack of freedom? But tobacco kills. What are the ethical, moral attitudes? Again, there's a technology involved and a science involved. Is it addictive? Where's the evidence for it? Are there really flying saucers and aliens that the government is keeping secret from us?

What methods would you suggest to children, say age eight, about how to solve a problem?

At eight children are beset and fascinated by their own problems. When giving children problems in school, the school and teacher can be imaginative and present children with problems. We do that in our hands-on science courses. We can focus children on a particular problem such as, which is the best of the six detergents advertised on television? You might suggest that maybe it's important that the soap bubbles be sturdy so you might then propose, or they might propose eventually, to measure how long the soap bubbles live. All of a sudden you have an experiment. Then you can decide that Tide has the longest living soap bubbles, but it is the result of a quantitative measurement. The kids can make that measurement. They make detergent, they make bubbles, they blow them, they catch them on a wire hoop, they use a stop clock and when the bubble breaks, they stop it and they compile a lot of data. They can graph it and do things like that. You can concentrate on problems that are not worldwide problems, but that an eight-year-old you can develop, a problem that a kid can address by thinking about how you might settle the issue. Give kids the training in the process of science and the content can come later. I think one has to have an appreciation of how you come to a problem and how you address it and try to find out what the answer is. If you don't do that, kids are going to come to problems with preconceptions. Some psychologists, like Howard Gardner, are very strong on trying to say that you have to route out the false preconceptions that children develop concerning the natural world. If you don't confront them, they become part of the whole issue. So, if you want to teach them that if you put together a hot cola and a cold cola, heat will flow from hot to cold, that might absolutely be a lost cause because kids don't understand the whole concept of heat flow. For them, heat feels; it doesn't flow.

Would you please share with us some of your favorite or most rewarding ways to relax or revitalize yourself?

Well, right now, I'm skiing which is always a relaxing thing. If you're interested in survival, you have to pay some attention to how to get down from this ridiculously high mountain and so you concentrate on in the beginning how to survive going from the top to the bottom. A little later you might find it's more fun to survive elegantly and do more swishing than cabooming. And so, I've always found that skiing is relaxing. Hiking is a lot of fun because you involve yourself with nature and you want to stress yourself as much as possible. So, vigorous hiking is always rewarding. I used to do some climbing earlier, but I don't any longer. Reading books­-reading novels is relaxing. I used to do a lot of reading when I wasn't writing. Once you start writing a book, then it's very hard to find the time to read. Reading is very good. I like to go to movies. While you're concentrating on these things like skiing, hiking, reading, or going to the movies, your brain is still working and mulling over the problems that last challenged it.

Of what efforts are you most proud?

I keep going back to my graduate students. I have 52 and my standard joke is that none of them are in jail. But I would guess that the thing that always gives me a kick is when somebody says, "You won't remember me, but I was in your Physics I class in Chicago or Columbia and it was really a great class." That's the biggest kick you can get-being a teacher. There's nothing better than giving a good lecture and you feel it's good because you can see it in their eyes and the little group that collects around you after the lecture.

Dr. Lederman has been associated with Columbia University, New York, NY as a student and faculty member for more than thirty years, and the Eugene Higgins Professor as well as director of Nevis Laboratories in Irvington, the Columbia physics department center. He led the lab in intensive and wide-ranging series of experiments from 1961 until 1979 with major advances in the understanding of weak interactions. His research was based on accelerators at Nevis, Brookhaven, CERN, Berkeley, Rutherford, Cornell and Fermilab. His list of publications, including his most recent publication, The God Particle, numbers 200 plus. Dr. Lederman is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous awards including the National Medal of Science (1965), the Eliot Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1976), the Wolf Prize in Physics (1982), and the Nobel Prize in Physics (1988). In 1993 he was awarded the Enrico Fermi Prize by President Clinton.