‘God particle’ physicist and Nobel laureate Leon Lederman dies at 96

Lederman helped promote the importance of particle physics to the general public and his research laid the groundwork for the Standard Model.

  • Lederman won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering a second type of neutrino.
  • He coined the nickname 'God particle' for the Higgs boson in his 1993 bestseller The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?
  • In 2015, Lederman and his family sold his Nobel Prize to pay for medical bills resulting from dementia.

Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate and particle physicist celebrated for his sense of humor and ability to explain physics to the general public, has died at the age of 96.

During his long and decorated career, Lederman directed the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, coined 'the God particle' as a popular term for the Higgs boson, and conducted groundbreaking research that helped lay the foundations for the Standard Model of particle physics, which scientists use to explain nearly every force in the universe besides gravity.

In 1988 Lederman and two of his colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering a second type of neutrino, the muon. (Scientists later discovered a third called the tau.) The Nobel Foundation wrote:

"In decays of certain elementary particles, neutrinos are produced; particles that occasionally interact with matter to produce electrons. Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz, and Jack Steinberger managed to create a beam of neutrinos using a high-energy accelerator. In 1962, they discovered that, in some cases, instead of producing an electron, a muon (200 times heavier than an electron) was produced, proving the existence of a new type of neutrino, the muon neutrino. These particles, collectively called "leptons", could then be systematically classified in families."

In addition to discovering and experimenting with subatomic particles, Lederman also promoted the importance of particle physics to the general public, most prominently in his 1993 bestselling book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

He described his choice to nickname the Higgs boson like this:

"This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle. Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one... "

To say the nickname was disliked by physicists, including Peter Higgs himself, would be an understatement. In a 2009 article for The Guardian, science journalist Ian Sample asks a Manchester University physicist what he thinks of the name:

"He paused. He sighed. And then he said: "I really, really don't like it. It sends out all the wrong messages. It overstates the case. It makes us look arrogant. It's rubbish." He then added: "If you walked down the corridor here, poked your head into people's offices, and asked that question, you would likely be struck by flying books."

Image: Fermilab

Leon Lederman.

Although he was an atheist, Lederman didn't propose that physics could provide an all-encompassing explanation for our universe.

"There's always a place at the edge of our knowledge, where what's beyond is unimaginable, and that edge, of course, moves," Lederman told The New York Times in 1998, adding that we might know the laws of physics but we don't know where they came from, leaving us "stuck."

"I usually say, 'Go across the street to the theology school, and ask those guys, because I don't know.'"

In 2015, Lederman's Nobel Prize gold medal was auctioned off for $765,002 to pay for his medical bills that resulted from dementia.

"I'm shocked it sold at all," Lederman's wife, Ellen, told The Associated Press. "It's really hard. I wish it could be different. But he's happy. He likes where he lives with cats and dogs and horses. He doesn't have any problems with anxiety, and that makes me glad that he's so content."

Lederman once described the mindset in which he often found himself doing his best work. "The best discoveries always seem to be made in the small hours of the morning, when most people are asleep, where there are no disturbances and the mind becomes most contemplative," he told science writer Malcolm W. Browne in Discover magazine in 1981.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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