Leon M. Lederman


Interview, December 2001

Interview with Dr. Leon Lederman by Joanna Rose, science writer, 7 December 2001.

Dr. Lederman talks about discoveries in physics yet to be made, his book “The God Particle” (5:45), his work on public education in science (7:06), why science is so important to us (9:32), and how we have to change school systems that crush children’s curiosity (11:00).

Interview transcript

Professor Leon Lederman, welcome to Stockholm and to this Nobel interview. You have won the Nobel Prize in 1988 and this was for your research in elementary particle physics and the last century was really a very exciting time in physics and some people maybe say that all the major discoveries in physics, they are there. Do you think so?

Leon M. Lederman: I don’t know. There’s certainly some discoveries that still have to be done, in other words there are some things we don’t understand and we don’t know how profound these are. You know, 100 years ago, there was also a feeling that all the discoveries were done, but there were some funny things and the question was are these minor problems that will be solved by the powerful knowledge that came from Uten and Maxwell, from the 1600s right through the end of 1900s, I mean, well, the end of the 1800s. Was all of that knowledge powerful knowledge enough and so that the small things that we didn’t understand would be fixed? And many people thought they would be fixed. Instead, they were indications of the major revolution.

And then the quantum physics came.

Leon M. Lederman: That’s right, quantum physics and relativity, the two pillars of 20th century physics were discovered after that period of over confidence, so I think we’re in somewhat the similar situation now except that the things we don’t understand now obviously are more profound.

As what?

… the puzzles we have now may very likely be revolutionary …

Leon M. Lederman: They’re very deep, because they connect and my subject of particle physics with a subject of cosmology and astrophysics, so we’re now looking at connections between the absolutely ultra-small of sub-nuclear particle physics and how those influence the whole universe, the origin and evolution of the universe, and there are puzzles in that connection. You know, we know there’s a connection, deep connections, we’ve seen these connections, they’re some of the most exciting discoveries being made now and were made over the last few decades, and in a way has to continue, so the puzzles we have now may very likely be revolutionary.

You know, I love the metaphor of the little embryo chicken who wakes up inside the egg with plenty of food and spends a huge amount of time eating the food that’s provided for it. Finally finishes all the food inside the egg and says, that’s the end of the world, I mean I’ve done everything there is to do in this world, and then suddenly there’s a crack in the egg and the little chick puts its head outside, oh my goodness, look at what’s going on outside, so we may be in that sort of position. You know, I think it was Isaac Newton who even expressed that by saying we may be like little children looking for shiny pebbles on a beach of an ocean of ignorance, so then we may find very profound changes, that’s certainly possible and I would say a large number of my colleagues are ready to believe that new worlds are to be discovered in our field.

Yes, because there is still this question, it’s obvious that we are swimming in the ocean of ignorance, but the question is will it be physics that can …

Leon M. Lederman: How deep, yes, how deep is the ocean?

How deep is the ocean?

Leon M. Lederman: We should hasten to say that, whereas the field I’m talking about, which is sort of cosmology and particle physics, that field is different from the rest of physics because the rest of physics, the physics of complexity, that will go on forever, there’s no question about that because there’s essentially an infinite amount of complexity, I believe, and these days some of that is called biology which of course between us is a branch of physics nowadays because it’s based on molecules.

Yes. So in this perspective, physics is just …

Leon M. Lederman: Yes, I mean, that’s right, yes. But our field is different because it asks only one question, which is how does the world work, and as soon as we’ve found out how the world works, we’ll stop spending money and building expensive telescopes and accelerators and maybe we’ll solve important problems like how to avoid traffic jams in Stockholm or, you know, help the biologists with their complex molecules which have to do with the origin of life, or the chemists with, again, complex problems with large and structured molecules. There are many, many things to do but at the moment we’re stuck with these fundamental problems of how did the world begin and what is the connection between quantum mechanics and relativity? These two pillars have to be connected in some way and at this time, they’re incompatible with each other.

Yes. You wrote the popular science book called “The God Particle”. What do you think is the connection between the particle and the God?

… Nature is very puzzling, nature has to be understood …

Leon M. Lederman: Well, the God particle, the name was given by a publisher who wanted to make a lot of money and I must admit I was sympathetic to his desire, so the name was really when I was writing the book, it was called the Higgs particle. At the end, the commercial interest said no-one ever heard of Higgs but everyone has heard of God so we’ll call it the god particle but the god in my book is not a theological god, it’s more of a philosophical god, it’s really a metaphor for nature. Nature is very puzzling, nature has to be understood and Einstein often made that connection, he called it in German “der Alter”, the old man, you know, how did he and I prefer she in my book, as a she and I thought if it would be ever made into a movie then Margaret Thatcher could play God, that would be a perfect role.

How come? Why?

Leon M. Lederman: Oh I don’t know, she’s tough.

Ok, so you see the God as a tough woman.

Leon M. Lederman: That’s right.

You’re working a lot with the science and public and with public education in science. Is it since you have been awarded the Nobel Prize?

Leon M. Lederman: Well, let’s see, when did I start? Well, you know, in the US we invented the best job in Western civilisation, which is being a professor at a university because you do research and you teach, if you insist, and teaching was always something I liked to do, so I was always a teacher as well as a researcher.

Physics for poets, was it?

Leon M. Lederman: Yes, that’s right. First I taught all kinds of physics for physicists, but eventually they let me teach the most difficult of all courses, which was physics for poets. Aren’t really poets, they were liberalised students and we taught a physics course which tried to be rich in the humanities aspect of science. In other words, how does science work? Not only the content of science, the equations, which they will forget as non-scientists, but also how it works, how do you find out things and why is it that, whereas scientists share all of the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people, I know it’s hard to believe but they do.

You know that, yes.

Leon M. Lederman: Yes, but science itself seems to be not subject to the weaknesses of scientists because it has a mechanism for correcting errors and mistakes and it grows only and today the culture of science is a universal culture, the only universal culture. And then we’re living in an age, what with the acceleration due to global this and global that and global trade and global information. We’re in a scientific age that’s influencing everyone that lives in this world and it becomes intolerable that the citizens of this world don’t understand the science. I think this is just not acceptable. It’s just as bad as if our citizens of the world could not communicate, could not read and write and speak with their fellow people. Science literacy becomes as important as literature literacy, if you like.

Why do you think it is so? Why is science so important?

… science is changing our lives …

Leon M. Lederman: Because science is changing our lives. The engine for change comes out of science and technology, so today it’s cell phones and computers and laptops and internet and in 10 years, you can think of something, an equivalent set of words which will change the way we live. Science changes the way we live, it has huge economic consequences. You may know that in developing countries, a 5th grade education – which includes science – is the best contraceptive ever invented and since population’s a major human problem, science influences that, so science is the driving influence for change and today, we’re very aware that there is a battle, if you like, or some people like to call it a war between civilisation and rigid belief systems, fundamentalism which does not allow for any diversity of opinions on how the world works and so science is in conflict and I think that’s a conflict we cannot avoid and that conflict takes place in the schools of the world.

So you don’t think that the schools, for example the schools in the US, do the right job?

Leon M. Lederman: Oh, they’re doing a terrible job in my opinion because the US, you know, there are experts that measure science understanding and I think the US is not much worse than France or maybe Sweden. I think most countries do not educate non-scientists properly so that they feel comfortable with science. The teachers have that problem because teachers themselves especially teachers of young children, primary school teachers, are totally ignorant about how to teach science and what science is; how to teach mathematics and what mathematics is. And that’s terrible because children are born scientists, right? They do everything that scientists do. They test how strong things are, they measure the falling bodies, they’re balancing themselves, they’re doing all kinds of things to learn the physics of the world around them, so they’re all perfect scientists. They ask questions, they drive parents crazy with why, why, why. And then somehow they go into school and the school system crushes their curiosity and converts them to timidity and to the same fear of science that the teachers have.

Why is it so, do you think?

Leon M. Lederman: I think it’s a failure of our educational system to recognise the changing world. The educational system should change with the world and it doesn’t and the US, you know, I often think of, we have ‘Star Trek’, you know, and ‘Star Trek’ is very futuristic and in some ‘Star Trek’ episodes, people can travel in time, so if we had some visitor from the 19th century that would come to any modern city, they would be absolutely amazed and upset by all the changes, by the traffic, by the ability to get information from the internet, by so many things that would bewilder them but you could calm them by bringing them into the school. They would say, aha! This is more like what I know from my former life. You know, the schools have not changed. They have not kept up with the changing life that has been brought to us by science and technology and the science and the influence on society of science, which sometimes we call technology.

We have to be able to have people comfortable with that because there’s always the dark side of technology. We know that if we’re not careful, that technology can be environmentally unfriendly. We know that people feel uncomfortable with science, especially if they’re a little older. They know that internet is useful but they’re not quite sure how to use it, therefore they’re sometimes disoriented, if you like, and then sometimes they become antagonistic to scientific progress, if you like, and that’s bad because science has the possibilities of creating wonderful life styles and potentialities and life long learning and travel and communication and so many opportunities that science and its technology provide that it’s criminal, if you like, for the average citizen not to be comfortable.

Do you see that part of this is a result of how science works or how scientists are working?

Leon M. Lederman: Well, science itself is the acquisition of knowledge, so you can’t blame science because you would be saying I don’t want to know. Science says here are how things work. Technology is the application of science in society and that’s in the hands of not the scientists but more of the politicians, the citizens and their leaders, and in democratic society elected officials who have to make decisions because not everything we know how to do, we should do.

There may be things we don’t want to do because they have bad effects and we’ve learned a lot about the problems of pollution and environmental contamination and we’re now much wiser about this and the US in its occasional wisdom developed something called the Office of Technology Assessment, which was an office to look at technologies and to warn us that some technologies may not be beneficial. But then another Congress came and said we don’t need such advice and so wisdom is not always part of political life.

But you have been fighting the science illiteracy for many years now. Do you have any results of your work?

… you have to continue through the entire education always bringing in the importance of science …

Leon M. Lederman: Of course. But I don’t know how to measure them because I think it’s a long term thing. You know, first you should start in the schools, that’s a long term right, because it takes 20 years before the child who begins in school can make use of the knowledge that you give them, but you have to start early and we learn from the experts on children’s minds and brains and cognition science. We’ve learned that it’s very important to begin training of mathematics and science very early so that’s where you’ll begin, but then you have to continue through the entire education always bringing in the importance of science, so that if the student is going to be a lawyer or a business man or journalist or whatever they’re going to be, these days they have to have a basic understanding of how science works and a comfort level with science so that if there’s something new that happens and they don’t know it, they can find out. They learn how to go to internet and get information or they can go to their library, now they call them information centres, and find out.

That’s the basic training we need, is that people have to be comfortable with new ideas and new possibilities and that applies to future politicians. I mean, it’s just a chilling thought that politicians with so much power don’t understand science at all and they have to reach out to somebody near them, hopefully, who has more of an understanding. That can work if they can choose wisely among their advisors but I think there’s no substitute for some basic, just as there’s no substitute for understanding a language, you know. You need the grammar and the vocabulary before you can enjoy Shakespeare or do things that require that. It’s the same thing with the scientific knowledge.

And then, of course, you don’t want to neglect the people that are already out of school and so you need to use television and cinema, radio, museums, are extremely important, all of these channels for informal education. So we need programmes which don’t glamorise athletes and movie stars but maybe do something about scientists, you know. We need a programme which tells people how scientists work and what they do and what science can do and what science can’t do .

So you have a huge project on the long perspective.

Leon M. Lederman: That’s right, and I think we need to keep at it and keeping working at it and a lot of my colleagues in this Nobel ceremony, I think, are capable and some of them do and some of them don’t work at this project. More of them should work on it because that little pin they carry around has some respect.

Yes. Thank you very much Professor Lederman for taking your time.

Leon M. Lederman: Ok.

Leon M. Lederman: Thank you.

Interview, December 2001

Interview with Dr. Leon Lederman by Joanna Rose, science writer, 7 December 2001.

Dr. Lederman talks about discoveries in physics yet to be made, his book “The God Particle” (5:45), his work on public education in science (7:06), why science is so important to us (9:32), and how we have to change school systems that crush children’s curiosity (11:00).

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