How Did the Universe Begin? That's the $80 Million Question Leon Lederman and His Atom Smashers Aim to Answer

UPDATED 07/23/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/23/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

Flying from Chicago to New York one day in 1976, Leon Lederman found himself next to a woman working in the Jimmy Carter campaign. Lederman asked her personal opinion of the candidate. "Terrific in every way," she responded. "But he shouldn't go around advertising himself as a nuclear physicist. He's no more one than you or I."

The self-deprecating Lederman delights in retelling the story, perhaps because no one in the world is more a nuclear physicist than he. Lederman has just assumed command of the world's preeminent atom smasher: the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory at Batavia, Ill. (It honors Enrico Fermi, whose team produced the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942, thus launching the nuclear age.)

The model of modern-day Big Science, Fermilab, as it is known, was opened by a consortium of 52 universities in 1972. It cost $243.5 million, employs some 500 technicians and houses research projects by 600 physicists from all over the world. Lederman, 57, replaces Robert Rathbun Wilson, who brought Fermilab from drawing board to reality, then resigned last year in protest over what he considered insufficient federal funding. Long close to his predecessor, Lederman (who was running Columbia University's high-energy physics lab) consulted Wilson when he was offered the directorship. "He said, Take the job or else,'." reports Lederman. "Wilson made an important point by leaving, and I stand to gain because I'm new." He notes pointedly that "the $80 million the federal government provided this year for our lab is infinitesimal compared to the military budget or the money for medical research."

The accelerator's purpose is to break matter down into its smallest components. "What we're after," Lederman says, "is to understand the structure of nature, to know more about how we're made and how the world began." For decades physicists thought that the atom contained three basic particles: protons and neutrons in the nucleus, plus electrons orbiting it. In recent years, however, it has become widely believed that protons and neutrons themselves are composed of still smaller entities called quarks. The Fermilab accelerator is, in simplest terms, a sort of electromagnetic racetrack propelling atomic particles almost at the speed of light along its four-mile course. Collisions of these particles with target atoms break them into their various components—indeed, the process has been likened to banging two watches together to see what falls out. "That," exults Lederman, "is where the fun is—the pure science of it."

Lederman's romance with the subject began at New York's City College, from which he graduated in 1943. After World War II service with the Army Signal Corps, he went to Columbia to enroll in its Ph.D. program and never left until now. Married for 33 years, he and his wife, Florence, have three children. Their daughter Rena is an anthropologist in New Guinea, while her younger siblings are at Columbia and Cornell. Their dad became a star in 1977 when he led a group of physicists that found a new particle—the Upsilon—which indicates the existence of a fifth and possibly a sixth kind of quark (already whimsically nicknamed "Truth" and "Beauty"). "The fifth quark was not expected," Lederman says. "Its discovery shakes everything up. Now we'll have to go inside and see what's there."

Newly publicity-conscious as he tries to lobby for $50 million to double Fermilab's 400 billion-volt accelerating capacity, Lederman explains that all of this research isn't just abstract. "The superconducting magnets we're producing will be enormously useful in industry," he says, adding that Fermilab's neutron beams have also been used to treat more than 300 "hopeless" cancer patients. The results have been encouraging, but it is premature to hail the treatment as a cure.

"This is a particularly exciting time around the lab," says Lederman, who complains of his new administrative burden. "I hate it, I hate it," he grouses with a smile. Sometimes he can't get to his personal lab research until midnight, and then works until dawn. "If we can get inside the quark," says scientist Lederman, half facetiously, "then finding a way to world peace should be trivial."

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