As It Happens

Leon Lederman, Nobel Prize-winning 'God particle' physicist, remembered for his advocacy and wit

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman died this week aged 96. Lederman's friend and colleague remembers the groundbreaking scientist who coined the term, 'the God Particle' and advocated for science literacy.

Known as 'Mr. Particle Physics,' Lederman had to sell his Nobel Prize medal to pay for medical care

Nobel Prize-winner Leon M. Lederman has died at the age of 96. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

The world of particle physics has lost one of its heroes.

Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and popular science educator died on Wednesday. He was 96. 

Along with his work on subatomic particles called neutrinos, Lederman was also famed as the scientist who coined the nickname the "God particle" to describe the Higgs boson. He wanted to make the field of theoretical physics more accessible to ordinary people. 

Michael Turner, a theoretical cosmologist at the University of Chicago, worked under Lederman while he was the director of the renowned Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Turner about how he will remember his friend and the legacy he leaves behind.

Here is part of their conversation.

How important was Leon Lederman to physics, to science?

He was a giant in the field for, first of all, his research.

If all he did was his research, he would have gone down as one of the most important scientists of the last 50 years in physics.

But then the other thing that he did was he was a fantastic explainer. He was an advocate for science education at a time when not everyone appreciated it.

He was pushing science education in the early 1980s. He was a lone voice then and I think he would be smiling today that — I don't know if it's true in Canada, but certainly in the United States — when you say the word STEM, you don't have to say, "Oh, that stands for science, technology, engineering and math."

We've come a long way, and he started the big push toward science literacy and STEM education.

And as you say, he didn't take himself too seriously. He said in his Nobel speech, "the two neutrinos​ sound like an Italian dance team."

Yeah, I really liked that. He had so many of those.

The other joke I was remembering ... is he said, "I'm so old, I can remember when the Dead Sea was just sick."

One of those phrases that he came up with that popularized science, but was also something the scientific and publishing community thought was going too far, was that he described the Higgs boson as the "God particle." He slapped that on the title of his book, with the subtitle, "If the universe is the answer, what is the question?" How did people react to that?

It's fascinating. I think if anyone other than Leon had done that, there might have been a debate about how we shouldn't be mixing science and religion. The name stuck and I think it was taken in the right way.

This brings up another Leon Lederman joke. When somebody asked him about the title, he said" "Well that's not the title I wanted. The title I wanted was the ;God damn particle.' But my editors told me that you couldn't title a book that way."

Again, it was disarming his colleagues, who gave him a pass on that. And, of course, it caught the public's attention.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman speaks the World Science Festival in New York City in 2008. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

His wife sold the Nobel Prize that he won in order to pay for his medical care. Can you tell us about that?

It happened a couple of years ago. I certainly hope that's not the way Leon is remembered.

I happened to be in Sweden just after Ellen sold the Nobel Prize and I was very curious about [the Nobel committee's] reaction.

I think they had the right reaction. They said: We do not blame Leon or Ellen. We blame the health-care system in the United States that such a distinguished person and somebody who worked all of his life, and so hard, for society, would have to sell something like the Nobel Prize for medical care.

How will you remember him?

I will remember him as an incredibly positive force in science. He was the most supportive person.

If you'd go to him with a crazy idea  — and in science, we often have really crazy ideas — Leon would say, "Well, that sounds really interesting. Tell me more about it."

Maybe he'd help you shape it a little bit and he would support you. He always had some big project. He did not think small. "What big thing can we do?"

Written by Ashley Mak and John McGill. Produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.