Science

Leon Lederman, father of 'the God particle,' dies

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Leon Lederman in 2015.

Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and passionate advocate for science education who coined the term “the God particle,” died today at age 96. His death was announced by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, where he was director from 1978 to 1989.

Lederman and two colleagues shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988 for their discovery, 22 years earlier, that elusive particles called neutrinos come in more than one type. (Physicists now know that there are three types of neutrinos.) Later, Lederman headed the team that discovered a particle called the bottom quark. And he led Fermilab while it built its Tevatron collider, the world’s highest energy atom smasher from 1983 to 2010.

But Lederman may be better identified with the neologism in the title of his 1993 book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? He was referring to the Higgs boson, the last missing piece of physicists’ standard model of fundamental particles and forces, which was finally discovered in 2012.

Some physicists scorned the term for conflating religion and science. In the book, Lederman puckishly claimed he chose it for two reasons. First, he said, his publisher wouldn’t let him use a similar, but saltier, term. Second, Lederman wrote, “there’s a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one …” He followed with a passage from Genesis.

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