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If you like Leon Lederman's story, you might also like:
Gary Becker,
Freeman Dyson,
Judah Folkman,
Murray Gell-Mann,
John Mather,
Linus Pauling,
Glenn Seaborg,
Edward Teller and
Charles Townes

Leon Lederman's recommended reading: The Meaning of Relativity

Leon Lederman also appears in the videos:
From Student to Scientist: My Life in Science,

Mystery of the Cosmos: Life's Place in the Universe

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Leon Lederman in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Meet a Nobel Laureate

Related Links:
Nobel Prize
Physics Central

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Leon Lederman
Leon Lederman
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Leon Lederman Interview

Nobel Prize in Physics

June 27, 1992
Las Vegas, Nevada

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  Leon Lederman

Was physics your first love, or did you sort of stumble onto it?

Leon Lederman: I think the interest was there from the beginning, and then I came back to it later. I didn't know it was physics at first.

Leon Lederman: When I was a kid, it was science, it was very romantic activities, I read newspaper articles about scientists. It turned out to be physics in retrospect, I didn't know it at the time, I couldn't spell it. I read a book by Einstein, for kids, he wrote it for kids. It was called The Meaning of Relativity - wonderful book. He compared science with a detective story, where you have clues, and the scientist as detective, trying to put things together. False clues, you got to check up on them, make sure they're right. That was a big impression.

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
Through high school influences, I was attracted to chemistry. So I went to college and majored in chemistry, and then went back to physics in graduate school.

Were there scientists in the family?

Leon Lederman: No. I was the first in my family to go to college. I had an older brother who was a very big influence on me, but he never finished high school. He had magic hands, rigged up a laboratory in the basement, and he let me help him. I would do all the chores he was supposed to do if he would let me watch him do his experiments.

What was he like?

Leon Lederman: He was a little wild, I think. That's probably why he never finished high school, but he was a terrific influence for me.

Leon Lederman: (My brother) liked to do experiments. He would collect all kinds of equipment -- electricity, chemicals from the drug store. Occasionally, somehow he'd get hold of a chemistry set, and we had a flash of opulence. And he loved to do things, and he'd make things work, and I loved to watch him, and I think that was a strong influence on me. It sort of introduced me to things and how they work, and that was impressive. So I think that he probably disposed me toward chemistry, and in high school the chemistry teachers were more fun. So there I was a chemist.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Why did that change?

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
Leon Lederman: In College I majored in chemistry, but I also took a lot of physics courses. Then I won the war, one of those wars, I forget which one. I spent three years in the army, thinking about what I'd do when I finished and went to graduate school. When I finished military service, I decided physics was more fun. Why? Because the kids who were in physics happened to be more fun than the kids I met in chemistry. So when I got out of the army, I applied to graduate schools in physics.

What did your parents do?

Leon Lederman: My father was a storekeeper, and my mother raised the kids. They were first-generation immigrants in New York.

Where did they come from?

Leon Lederman: They both came from the former Soviet Union, before it was the Soviet Union. They emigrated separately, and met here when they were a bit older. Kind of a standard story for a New Yorker.

You said neither of them had a college education?

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
Leon Lederman: They never had the chance. My mother was sent here by her family because things were very dangerous where they lived at the time. She was only twelve years old, and had a tag around her neck with the address of someone in New York who expected her. She worked as soon as she could, but really never had an education. My father was politically active, and was one jump ahead of the Tsar's police. He escaped, came here, and immediately had to make a living. One of the wonderful things about the family was that, traditionally, learning was revered. Even though they didn't have it, they wanted their kids to have it.

Did they live to see some of your achievements?

Leon Lederman: Yes, they did. Not the Nobel Prize, unfortunately, but I was a professor, I was successful, I was winning so many medals it took me a half-hour to transfer them from my jacket to my pajamas every night, and back again in the morning. They lived to see that.

They were supportive of your career, I gather?

Leon Lederman: Oh, yeah. They were ecstatic. They didn't quite expect my career choice I made. My mother's ambition for me was to be a successful dentist. Maybe she had a point, come to think of it.

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This page last revised on Dec 18, 2007 17:47 EDT