Fermilab says farewell to Lederman
By Jenette Sturges email@example.com June 8, 2012 6:12PM
Nobel prize winner and founding scientist at Fermilab, Leon Lederman laughs during his speech at his farewell party at Fermilab. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 11, 2012 10:19AM
BATAVIA — Fermilab physicists said a fond farewell to one of their favorite and most famous colleagues, in a manner only physicists could dream up — a gong, a roast, hundreds of scientists gathering around for one last photo, and a Mother Goose rhyme.
“These are the thousands of people who watch the detectors that witness the protons that kill antiprotons that fly in the magnets that make the collider that Leon built,” read Vladimir Shiltsev, addressing Leon Lederman and a crowd of current and former Fermilab staff who on Friday said goodbye to Lederman. The lab’s Nobel-prize winning director emeritus is retiring to Driggs, Idaho.
Thousands of people — whether they monitored collisions on the Tevatron, received neutrino therapy for cancer or simply listened to a Saturday science lecture — have been touched by Lederman’s work in particle physics at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
Lederman was Fermilab’s second director, taking the helm in 1978. He is credited with first proposing a Midwestern site for a national accelerator laboratory in the mid-1960s.
As the laboratory’s director, Lederman oversaw major developments, most notably the construction of the Tevatron, until recently the world’s largest particle accelerator.
Lederman is perhaps best known in scholarly circles for his 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he earned along with Brookhaven physicists Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger “for the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the muon neutrino.”
Their work led to discoveries that “opened entirely new opportunities for research into the innermost structure and dynamics of matter,” according to the Nobel committee.
But among Fermilab’s scientists, he’s known for his sense of humor.
The farewell program was dominated by stories of stand-up comedy and practical jokes — racquetballs flying through meetings with foreign dignitaries, fake accelerator controls built and installed in offices — in a golden age of the U.S. particle physics program.
Outside of the laboratory, Lederman has also made his mark on the community, championing physics education and supporting programs like those at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, which he helped found in 1986.
In May, IMSA dedicated its Lederman Science Wing for Creative Inquiry to the scientist, who has served as the Aurora school’s resident scholar since 1998.
At Fermilab, the Lederman Science Center, an interactive learning center for middle school students, is named in his honor.
“I feel sorry for anyone who’s never been in lecture with him,” said Roger Dixon. “There’s an incredible magic — well it’s not magic, it’s science — it’s physics, hearing him speak.”
Lederman, who will turn 90 in a few weeks, had a few words for those who follow in his footsteps working at one of the world’s premier physics laboratories.
“I will not let you off the hook that Fermilab is the greatest laboratory in the universe, and probably in nearby universes, too,” said Lederman. “And that’s because you’re all such wonderful people.”
Fermilab Deputy Director Young-Lee Kim called Lederman a “real giant” in many aspects of science, as a physicist and as a leader, listing his many accomplishments and awards.
“You leave behind a beautiful, very rich neutrino program that will be a part of our future,” Kim said. “Even if you leave this laboratory, you are not really leaving.”