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'God particle' physicist Leon Lederman honored by National Science Foundation

by Eric Eckstrom
April 11, 2012


Courtesy of NSF

Leon Lederman is the 2012 recipient of the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Foundation. The annual award is given in memory of Vannevar Bush, who served as science advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II and was behind the creation of the National Science Foundation.

"What makes you say, ‘Thank God it's Monday,’ instead of ‘Thank God it's Friday’?


For Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, the answer to his question has always been science, from discovering subatomic building blocks of matter to heading the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. Science grabbed him as a youth, defined him growing up, and guided him to the mysteries of physics - a field he ultimately helped redefine as a man.

“He’s driven by science and a love of transmitting it. He’s very keen on motivating the brightest people to pursue science as an exciting field,” said physicist Jeffrey Appel, a long-time colleague and friend of Lederman.

His book, “The God Particle,” reads like an adventure novel about the search for the elusive Higgs boson, theorized to give mass to matter.

The National Science Foundation will honor Lederman on May 3 with the Vannevar Bush Award in recognition of a lifetime of achievement. The award adds to a litany of accolades the physicist, author, and director emeritus of Fermilab has received for his work. 

"We will honor Leon Lederman's scientific achievements, visionary leadership, national and international statesmanship and commitment to science education," said Ray Bowen, National Science Board chairman, in a statement. "He has contributed enormously to the public understanding of science and the development of science talent."


Lederman’s legacy was cemented in 1988 when he received the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of one kind of neutrino, a near massless particle without a charge that breezes through matter almost as though it isn't there. They can be detected, however, and are useful in probing for clues about environments such as the core of the sun.

“I’m delighted. It recognizes an eminent scientist,” said Appel, head of the Fermilab program planning office. “He contributed to the current understanding of basic building blocks of nature that had had profound impact on our thinking about the universe, the laws of physics and how we came to be – period.”


Lederman’s list of awards includes the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize and the Ernest O. Lawrence Medal. He has also authored many publications, including the popular science book, “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question,” in 1993. 

Lederman was unavailable for comment, but Appel said his work in educational reform has been as important to him as his work as a scientist.

As the science adviser to the Governor of Illinois, Lederman “helped to organize the Teachers' Academy for Mathematics and Science, designed to retrain 20,000 teachers in the Chicago Public Schools in the art of teaching science and mathematics," as reported in his autobiography to the Nobel Prize.

“I suspect if he had to rank things, his educational reform and motivating young people is at the same level as [his] scientific achievements,” Appel said.

Appel said an achievement of particular note was Lederman’s outreach work in Latin American countries. He went to countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico “encouraging [scientists] to come to Fermilab and work with international field teams.”  Many of those participants, according to Appel, are now leaders in those countries.

Lederman is known for his sense of humor and efforts to connect science at all levels with everyday people.

“I always wanted to be a standup comic. I didn't have the talent to do that but, among physicists, I'm great, because none of them can tell jokes,” Lederman said during an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 1992.

In 2010, Lederman partnered with the Chicago Council on Science and Technology for an event called “Street Corner Science: Ask a Nobel Laureate.”  Lederman sat outside the Chicago Wrigley Building and answered any questions about science from people passing by that day.

The Vannevar Bush Award ceremony will take place on May 3 at the Department of State in Washington, DC.