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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
Encyclopedia.com

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Leon Lederman
 
Leon Lederman
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Leon Lederman Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Physics

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  Leon Lederman

Is there anything that you haven't done, career-wise or even hobby-wise, that you really have yearned to do? I understand music does a lot for you.

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
Leon Lederman: I started taking piano lessons some years ago for the first time. There's a whole literature of "music for the older beginner." My music teacher was very enthusiastic. She said, "You must love music to take up piano at your age," and I said "You don't understand. I want to make money!" I had fun. After sort of six or eight months I was really playing stupid little pieces and enjoying them. But it took time and now I want to write books. I wrote one book that was published. It was on the worst-sellers' list for 27 weeks, and I have another book coming out in late Fall, which I think is going to be a real funny book. 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.

You get to practice on your students all the time.

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
Leon Lederman: Oh yeah. In the student course card they say "Watch out for his corny jokes, they're awful." I think it's okay. It keeps them awake. What am I going to tell them next? "Hey, Red, wake up that kid sleeping next to you." And Red says, "Why should I? You put him to sleep."

Tell us about your work with Charlie Townes at Columbia. What was he like?

Leon Lederman: Charlie was a great guy. Columbia had some wonderful people at that time. It was just after World War II, and Charlie came to Columbia from Bell Labs. He immediately started a very vigorous research program on atomic physics and spectroscopy. Ultimately, he invented the maser and the laser. He was a tremendous, productive guy. At one point, I think he had 16 graduate students working on different problems. He was the guy I was most tempted to join. I took a class with him and he invited me to do my thesis with him. It was only this new idea and this new accelerator that drew me away from that. Townes was a great teacher and a tremendous active researcher with a lot of energy, and he's still at it! That's really impressive.

What about Murray Gell-Mann, Mr. Quark?

Leon Lederman: Murray Gell-Mann? He was an instructor at Columbia. He came through for about a year at that time. He was a delightful guy to talk to. If he's not the most productive guy of his particular generation, he's probably the prime candidate. The number of breakthroughs that he made has been a tremendous stimulation to the field. You have to have guys like that. You can't say he was the best, but he was certainly, among the most productive physicists in our field.

I gather you have strong feelings about the development of atomic weapons and defense technology. Can you share some of that with us?

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
Leon Lederman: I was not involved in the Manhattan project, the development of the atomic bomb. I was in the army, and I was working on radar, which is a different subject. The interesting thing is that after the bomb, in spite of the fact that many scientists did not want to use it, scientists felt a tremendous burden of responsibility to maintain communications with the government, and maintain an interest in it.

Charlie Townes invited me to join a group of physical scientists who were advising the government on scientific matters. There's always a problem when you get into high technology and advanced science with an impact on war and peace. I'll give you an example. Suppose the President of the United States wants to know whether to build some complex airplane. Who can he ask? The air force, their experts on airplanes? He can ask the manufacturers, they're experts on airplanes. Who else can he ask?

Physical scientists, or scientists in general, may not know anything about airplanes, but they have the knack and the training to find out very quickly about the technical issues. So this group advised the government on technical issues, and we were ready to address problems that the President wanted solved. I spent ten years working on that.

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
But I think we're in a different period now. Fundamentally, the scene was set by President Eisenhower in his famous retiring address. Eisenhower warned us about what he called "the military-industrial complex," where huge sums of money have created an entity which wants to continue spending huge sums of money. I think that's what we have to be concerned about as we face a future with totally changed circumstances.

We see the former Soviet Union demolished in many ways. There are still lots of dangers ahead of us, problems of terrorism, of Husseins, and Qadafis that we have to be concerned about. We still haven't dismantled a huge number of weapons. Still, the threat has changed dramatically, but our military budget hasn't changed at all. Imperceptibly. That's a problem Americans have to face in view of all the different needs for education, for science, for rehabilitation a crumbling infrastructure. We've got problems.

What makes a great scientist? What are the qualities that go into success in your field?

Leon Lederman: You have to be arrogant, in a sense, because you're trying to answer very deep questions. You need a certain amount of self-confidence. That's a kinder, gentler word than arrogance. Of course, you've got to have analytical abilities, or experimental abilities, or creativity. Creativity is an interesting quality, because generally it peaks very early in a person's life, and begins to fade away.


Leon Lederman: Many, many great theoretical breakthroughs in physics and mathematics were done by very young people. Of course, you have to know something, so that's experience, and experience grows with age, creativity is declining with age. You've got to find that balance between the two which will give you your peak years of accomplishment. If you have pure creativity, but you don't know anything, it's too bad. Sometimes it's bad to know too much. I remember Wolfgang Pauli, a very famous Austrian physicist, complaining about his own lack of creativity, said, "Ach, I know too much!" You see, if you know too much, then you don't have that fresh view which allows you to see the breakthrough idea.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


The forest for the trees?

Leon Lederman: That's right. If your mind is cluttered with the garbage of the work that we know, you're not going to be able to see that crystalline new idea. It was the child who said, "Hey, ma! The Emperor isn't wearing any clothes!" For a creative scientist, it's very good to get started early. Skip things and begin to accumulate the ability to do research. That's what we really keep emphasizing: research experience, even as an undergraduate. Get into the lab and begin to dabble with things a little bit. You don't have to learn everything, but begin to address the basic issues as soon as you can.

Curiosity is important, too.

Leon Lederman Interview Photo
Leon Lederman: Oh yeah. I think curiosity is important. Ego's important too. You're driven by ego. It's you who are going to find this thing! You can't pretend that it isn't ego. That would be nonsense. You have to understand yourself, and ego is an enormously important drive in all of us. You're a human being, and you want to be recognized. Competitiveness, unfortunately, is there too. One likes to moderate that. Total obsession is important, I think, but you've got to limit it.

More and more, scientists are working in teams, and that becomes a moderating influence. Maybe the total obsession can carry you for the 36-hour day, and the twelve-day week, and the seven-week month, but, at some point you've got to stop and go skiing read a poem, or go see a movie, or do something else to unwind and let your mind relax. You've got to have some other interests. It's not enough to be a totally dedicated scientist. You won't make it.

These days, more and more, you have to interact with other people, and understand their problems. Increasingly, we need women and minorities in science. Given this kind of obsessiveness and total dedication, we have to adjust to the fact that there are complex lives out there. These days, the two-career family is normal. It's no longer true that the man is free to do the science and the woman stays home and takes care of him. That's not always going to work. So if we want scientists, we do have to make important adjustments, institutionally.

Thank you. That was great.

Leon Lederman: Okay.

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