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In Memoriam: Leon Lederman, a Life of 'Awareness, Joy, and Curiosity'

Leon Lederman in 1982 | Fermilab

Leon Lederman, a Nobel Laureate and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who shed light on the basic building blocks of matter and sought to revolutionize science education, died Wednesday at a nursing home in Rexburg, Idaho. He was 96.

Lederman and two colleagues won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for their detection of the muon neutrino 22 years prior. Until their discovery, the nearly massless, subatomic particles called neutrinos were believed to exist in only one “flavor.” Three varieties are now known to exist.

Even as an intellectual powerhouse who took pride is his achievements as a postdoctoral researcher and professor at Columbia University, Lederman maintained a characteristic wit and self-effacing disposition. “During my academic career at Columbia (1951 – 1979) I have had 50 Ph.D. students,” he wrote in his Nobel Lectures autobiography. “Fourteen are professors of physics, one is a university president and the rest with few exceptions, are physicists at national labs, in government or in industry. None, to my knowledge, is in jail.”

“It comes from a terror of taking myself seriously,” Lederman said about his humor in a 1998 New York Times interview. “It also puts me into a comfortable relationship with other people. It’s human to want to make people laugh.”

“It’s part of teaching,” he added. “Teaching is show business.”

After establishing himself as one of the most important particle physicists in history, Lederman devoted his life to primary and secondary education.

Born in Manhattan in 1922 to Jewish immigrants from Russia and raised in the Bronx, Lederman lived in and around New York City until age 57, save three post-college years serving in World War II with the Army Signal Corps and sabbaticals at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva and other laboratories.

In 1979, he left his position as director of Columbia’s Nevis Laboratories to lead the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside of Chicago. He used his new home as a testing ground for the changes to K-12 science instruction that he hoped to see implemented worldwide.

Lederman celebrates his birthday with children from the Fermilab daycare center. | Fermilab

Six years after moving, Lederman founded the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a residential public high school that is among the best in the country for science and math. IMSA’s success proved the logic of the “Physics First” curriculum that Lederman advocated. “It would be much smarter to teach physics in the ninth grade, which would teach atomic structure to provide an understanding of how atoms combine, the essence of chemistry,” he said in the New York Times interview. Biology, which is based on the molecules formed by atoms, should be taught last, he argued.

In 1990, Lederman orchestrated the establishment of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science. The program aimed to train roughly 17,000 teachers in Chicago’s nearly 500 public elementary schools to adopt hands-on, inquiry-based science and mathematics teaching techniques.

TAMS quickly became a global model for improving science instruction and, more specifically, for closing the gap in opportunity between students from high- and low-income families. Georges Charpak, Lederman’s close friend and fellow Nobel Laureate in Physics, was inspired by the children benefitting from the program and convinced the French Ministry of National Education to roll out the similar La Main à la Pâte initiative. Likewise, at a conference on primary school science and mathematics education in Beijing, Lederman advised China’s vice premier on the flaws of rote instruction.

“He understood that was the responsibility,” says Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS, where Lederman served as president in 1992. “You take whatever prestige you have earned, and you try to use it. Not for personal gain, but for influencing the situation for other people, to try to make a difference in the way that we educate kids.”

After his term as AAAS president, Lederman remained intimately involved with the organization via programs and meetings. AAAS was the U.S. host for the International Council for Science’s Committee on Capacity Building and Science that Lederman chaired. He also served as a panelist at the 2004 Conference on Science and Technology Education in Paris, which was co-sponsored by AAAS and UNESCO.

Lederman is survived by Ellen Carr, whom he married in 1981. He also leaves behind two daughters and a son from his first marriage, as well as five grandchildren. His first wife, Florence Gordon Lederman, died in 1990.

“There is the optimistic, yet reachable, goal in our 21st century schools of learning and teaching the connections among all areas of knowledge,” Lederman wrote with Marjorie Bardeen in a 1998 Science Policy Forum about their vision for science education. “On the grand scale, they tell of the influence of history on science and the influence of science on history and philosophy… On the small scale, we learn of the firing of neurons, complex molecules built of atoms obeying the laws of physics and chemistry, which causes our human consciousness to blaze with awareness, joy, and curiosity.”

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Adam D. Cohen