Community Education

Interview with Dr. Lederman

This interview with Dr. Leon Lederman was conducted on the morning of 1/12/00 in the Art Gallery at Fermilab. Dr. Lederman was quite gracious despite a couple of technical problems with the camcorder used to capture it, and I want to again thank him for taking time out of his schedule to talk with us.

1) What's around the corner? by Bucko
A century ago it was noted that, "...except for just a few little problems with the hydrogen spectrum, all of physics had been solved." In your opinion, what are the outstanding problems that are likely to be solved in the foreseeable future?
Dr. Lederman:
In physics, there is a feeling of optimism that the problem we've been beating our heads against for the last 20 years or so, the generic problem of the Higgs, might be solved. We proposed the Superconducting Super Collider. The motivating feature was to expose the Higgs or confront the Higgs phenomena with experimental data. We knew from what the Higgs was supposed to do that the energy of the Super Collider would certainly confront that issue. In other words the Higgs would be a failed hypothesis if it didn't show up the energies of that Texas machine. Well, the Texas machine is not being built.

There are a lot of interesting things that will happen in the foreseeable future of particle physics.

Now, I know it's hard to believe, but there's physics that isn't particle physics. Some of it is even interesting! :)

For me the more interesting thing is in the complexity of say condensed matter physics and the other fields that it borders, including material science and some pieces of chemistry, is covered by the word emergence. Some complexity experts believe that out of complexity will emerge new laws of physics that can't be reduced to quarks and leptons.

2) What will happen to journals? by Otter
As a biologist, I've been interested to see how rapidly the physics community has embraced new methods of publication. (The WWW being one example.) In the next 20-30 years, do you think that paper journals with online archives will persist as the standard in most sciences or will online-only journals reach the same level of prominence?
Dr. Lederman:
Oh gosh, that's a hard question. We've been predicting the end of books and paper for a long time. In fact the use of paper is increasing. There's more paper around than ever before and you can still go to a bookstore and fondle a book, hold it to your cheek and say how nice, I'm never going to get rid of you, I'm never going to read you from a screen because I want a copy of you. Even if I never touch it, every time I go by the book shelf I look at that rosy red book I think, gee that was fun to read that.

I think in that sense history shows us to be very conservative. I think there will be a lot of online stuff, preprints were the predecessors to the online materials and they were gobbled up immediately by the web. Now we don't have to wait weeks for the preprints. If someone has an idea worth disseminating it's immediately disseminated. The big problem is we don't have these 'Good Housekeeping Seal of Approvals'. I've often thought someone could make a lot of money, I'm throwing this out there for the would-be millionaires or billionaires, in quality assurance. What would save people a lot of time would be a little code. For $10 a year you get access to this code that will tell you this is worth reading. You're an entrepreneur and you hire 100 graduate students on all fields. They may get things wrong, but so what, a few mistakes won't hurt anything. That's what we need though, is something to prune all the material. Now it's done by the network, oh there's Joe and Joe's a good guy, I'm going to read his stuff. That comes from the graduate students sitting in classes with fellow graduate students and then they fan out and you have that connection for life. So, be nice to that guy sitting next to you in class because he's going to be your colleague for the rest of your life.

3) Physics on a shoestring budget by MAXOMENOS that Congress has more or less gutted funding for pure science, how can we change the way we do Physics to make up the difference? Could the next Physics breakthrough be done in someone's garage, for example? If this is the case, what advice do you have to offer those who want to conduct (experimental) physics research on a shoestring budget?
Dr. Lederman:

Well, first of all I don't think 20 billion dollars a year is gutted. The basic research budgets sort of squeak through. Again the increases weren't nearly enough to make up for what we need every year, which is inflation at a few percent a year, but more than that it's complexity. Every year the problems get harder, because we solved the easy ones last year. That complexity factor needs to be folded in if you want to keep research at a constant level. I think that whole thing might be somewhere between 5 and 10% a year, some number like that. I don't know what happened this year.

Of course we have the phenomena in the U.S. of the National Institutes for Health. Everyone wants to be healthy, especially congressmen. I'm not saying congress is sick... I guess I am saying congress is sick :) The NIH has been very well managed though, so that they are getting the bulk of the increase. Their budgets have zoomed up. I'm not against that, I think that's fine. I think it's money well spent. I just don't like to see the physical sciences suffering, and they are suffering. Both relatively and absolutely, so we have a fight on our hands to keep the physical sciences budgets growing. It's not a catastrophe though. The high energy budget is up 4% or something like that. It's not what we need, but we can live with that.

The shoestring idea is an interesting one, and I'm not saying that you can't have bright ideas that are possible to check with a moderate amount of equipment, but the shoestring is going to be pretty elaborate, like the table top experiments. If you look at table top experiments, which are often cited as being warmer and fuzzier and more intimate than the huge experiments that are done at particle physics labs or astronomical labs, small science is an enviable thing and I think there ought to be funds available to support good ideas. Good is determined in the usual way, by peer review. In the garage and shoestring is kind of an exaggeration and I would say not very possible. Table top experiments, if the table is reinforced with some i-beams :), can do lots of good physics with small, but also moderately expensive, apparatus.

4) Propulsion Physics by aibrahim
I am a member of the contributor network for NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program. The objective of the program is to create new propulsion and energy technologies that would allow mankind to reasonably travel within the solar system and to nearby stars.

Given the staggering problems, what sources of propulsion and energy do you envision that might realistically allow humanity to travel within the solar system with relative ease ?

What solutions do you see for radioactive shielding on such trips? Do you think we will always be bound to using massive shields, or will we become able to use some sort of electromagnetic barrier?

Dr. Lederman:

This is the typical question that's over my salary level. I'm not expert on these things. :)

My own feeling would be pessimistic, but I would tune in my mind on Star Trek and see what ideas they've had. They've been working at this for a long time. Of course antimatter propulsion comes to mind. I think NASA and the military have paid real money to look at antimatter propulsion.

Fermilab is probably the most prolific source of antimatter right now. We have a machine that makes hot and cold running anti-matter and if that machine were made one hundred times more efficient, we made 100x as many anti-protons as we do now, then it would take a at least a few thousand years to make a milligram of anti-matter. We shouldn't hold our breath. No one can predict some huge breakthrough on how to make more antimatter more rapidly and so on, but it doesn't look very promising as a thing to look into. I wouldn't recommend an all out crash program.

Everything else that's dramatic in this business is so speculative that it doesn't call for crash programs. There was a big flap about magnetic poles once. Some of the defense industries took out patents on ideas regarding the usefulness of a magnetic pole for propulsion. You know, it's a little like holding a fish out in front of a horse so the horse chases the fish and pulls the sled.

It doesn't look as if there's anything other than the kinds of things people are working on now. As far as radioactivity, that will be a problem for long term exposures in space and I don't see a solution to that except a burden on the mass that you have to transport.

Unless we can understand the human genome and convert ourselves into small insects for the duration, but you have to remember that if you make a tiny mistake in the DNA, you stay an insect. Or worse. :-)

5) Physics and social responsibility by pq
Sir: Every physicist seems to have their own personal stance on social responsibility, ranging from "We have none or very little" (a shallow reading of Feynman) to "It is our duty to educate the (possibly uninterested) layperson about our discoveries, and their potential for good and evil."

Where do you place yourself on this continuum? Do you feel that science is inherently agnostic, and we should go ahead and use it in any way we can, since if we don't, someone else will? Or do you believe that scientists have a moral and ethical responsibility to think through the consequences of their research? What do you feel about the collision between public funding of science, the increasing apathy and ignorance of the general public, and the expectation of a return on investment in basic sciences?

Dr. Lederman:

Here I weigh in strongly on ethical and moral responsibility. I think it's clear that science, by itself, is value free. Almost any scientific idea that has any applications at all can be applied for the benefit or to the detriment of the human condition.

It's interesting that we've just lived through a century in which the driving force for research has been, well, you can call it greed and fear. Greed in the sense that much of it was commercial. Fear in the sense that a lot of it was defense. So, defense and commercialism were the main funders of research. Somehow in spite of that there was enough support for what we like to call curiosity driven research. Research which scientists wanted to do because they must know the answers to the questions, so we had probably the most scientific century in history.

The end of the century we were very much aware, it's almost more than a symbolic result of some ancient Roman calendar maker who decided that this is the year 2000, we're at an epoch were technology is growing so rapidly and the effect of the technology is changing human behavior and human characteristics that social responsibility I think is becoming increasingly essential. That means that, as the question implied, I think a much more universal public understanding of science is important. That doesn't mean public appreciation, I think with understanding you're taking your chances. It may be that when the public really understands science they'll say we have too much of it or we don't have the right kind or they'll impose criteria. Nevertheless I think that it's crucial that the popular knowledge of science must increase.

Look at the problems we're facing. Population, that's the number one problem. Can we support 10 billion people and what kind of quality of life can we ensure without destroying the environment? Which is the second problem. There's the environment and population. You can't, I think, ameliorate the bad effects of population and maintain environmental quality without a popular consensus. People have to vote on this and it usually means giving up something. We may have a carbon tax so that we don't have rampant global warming and uncontrollable changes in our climate. Well, people have to pay the tax. They'll pay the tax, I think, if they understand the reasons for it. That again involves a social responsibility. I think that not only should scientists bring to attention the implications of the science that they do, but it's more that the scientists contribute to this public understanding.

How do you do that? Well, by writing books, by getting on television, by influencing the instruments of our culture. Movies, television, print media, radio. All of these things have an influence and scientists ought to tithe their time. 10% of your time ought to be going into the classroom, because schools are another way to get popular understanding of science.

So far our schools are doing a terrible job of graduating science literate people from high school who will then be part of this democratic process. Sweeping democracy is a good thing, but the democratic option must be accompanied by some knowledge of the issues. Some grasp. I like to use the phrase science savvy. Like a street savvy person knows how to negotiate a dangerous street. We have a dangerous world and we need science savvy, we need a sense of science. I'm there to educate even the "uninterested lay persons" about our discoveries and their potential for good and evil. Well said.

6) Is science a rational career choice? by Hydrophobe
Physics once meant everything to me, but now I'm doing the "greed is good" thing on the Internet.

I know a couple of folks who foolishly persisted in their dreams of a science career well past the age of employability (late 30s), and now they're shipwrecked and facing reality. It seems they have a lot in common with failed actors, musicians, and athletes who didn't make the big leagues. When did scientists become "starving artists?"

Is there any hope of reversing the tremendous attrition rate of potential scientists? In good conscience, should we even be encouraging young people to pursue science careers given their dim career prospects?

Do you share this pessimism, and what changes do you see in the decades to come, for better or for worse?

Dr. Lederman:

Ok. Let's look at this. I think unemployment among scientists, in this country, has been very low. Usually hovering around 2%. Which is sort of unmeasurable. That doesn't tell the whole story I realize, because when you measure career possibilities it's not only whether you don't have a job at all, it's what fraction of the people have jobs which are not up to what their hopes and dreams and ambitions were. That's a harder number to come by, I don't know if we know that.

Once upon a time being a scientist was a rare thing. There weren't many scientists. We didn't need many scientists in some sense. There was an equilibrium of some kind. A young person, captured by the drama and romance of science, said, I want to be a scientist, and nothing could turn him off. If you read the biographies of great scientists you see this. They had to do this, no matter what. They never expected to make a living at it, just somehow to survive.

For the next 10-20 years there is going to be a terrible shortage of teachers, including most severely science teachers. Teaching is a wonderful thing. I love teaching. I think teaching can be as rewarding an activity as anything you can think of which you can be involved with in science. You're learning all the time. If your not learning you're probably not doing it right.

7) Lack of skepticism in American society by Dast
While having an open mind is one of the most important personality qualities of a scientist, what has happened to skepticism in American society? These days it seems that, for most Americans, anything shrouded in scientific-sounding jargon is probably true, even when absolutely no supporting evidence is given. We believe such unsupported claims as aliens abducting and sexually molesting people, where evidence is replaced by the sheer emotional power of the stories. Why has scientific sounding jargon and emotional testimony become a replacement for hard data? And more importantly, what can we do about it? How can we teach people to be skeptical and to demand hard evidence for claims?
Dr. Lederman:

Very good. This goes back to six and social responsibility. Again, I think it's a failure of our educational system. A deep failure of our educational system. In part, it has to do with this explosion of technology.

The Internet, as an example of what the explosion of technology has done, is produce a certain amount of alienation. People are either techies, they're technically proficient, or they're not. When they're not, they see all these things passing by them. Computer? You know the guy who can't turn on the computer because he doesn't know where the switch is. It's almost that bad. Then you're turned off by that.

Yet people need a belief system. They'll go to someone who assures them. They'll go to Rush Limbaugh. Someone who has no doubts about what he's telling you being the unvarnished truth. They'll feel comfortable with that. The contrast is that if you are scientifically literate, then you're taught to be skeptical, to have doubts. People don't want to have doubts, they want secure systems. That's why I think one of the biggest dangers to civilization is the growth of radical fundamentalism. No doubts. If you don't believe what I say then I'm going to cut off your fingers, or your hand.

There's a big problem in our educational system. I think that requires a deep change in the system and a change in the system is hard to get. One of my favorites is the high school science curriculum. We're teaching it in the same order we did a hundred years ago. If a time traveler comes to us he'll be very comfortable in American high schools. They will take biology in 9th grade, chemistry in 10th grade, physics in 11th grade. It's just the wrong order and it's stupid to be in this wrong order. Yet our school systems are so rigid and so intertwined. It's not just the teacher in the classroom. It's the teacher in the classroom, it's the parents of the kids, the union of the teacher, the school administrators and the legislature and pretty soon you have a system that's so interlocked that it takes nuclear energy to make changes. We have to apply our energies in some judicious way. We have to graduate high school kids that are comfortable with science, so that they can be intelligent citizens. So they won't be taken in be the charlatans and TV evangelists that assure them that their sister was raped by an alien.

I notice that UFOs are big in China now, which will be an interesting problem for the Chinese. I'm glad that they aren't bothering us.

There's so many of these belief systems you know. Astrology for example. Fortunately, I'm a Sagittarius and Sagittarius' don't believe in astrology. :)

8) GUT by speek
Every pop book on Physics I've read for the past 20 years (sorry, I studied accounting in College) states that we are on the verge of a breakthrough that will allow an understanding of the Grand Unified Theory of Everything [GUT]. Say a GUT is found and verified (as much as possible). What technological breakthroughs would come in the 20 years following such a discovery, that were directly attributable to it? In other words, for everyday people, what are we likely to see as a benefit down the road from a successful GUT?

Dr. Lederman:

Sounds like a question we get from congressmen all the time. :-)

The honest answer is, at the moment, the glamorous Grand Unified Theory is superstrings. That's a hot subject and according to the people who have the mathematical sophistication to appreciate superstrings, it's a beautiful theory. It has no experimental implications right now, so it's not a proven theory. One can imagine that some kid, now in junior high school, not turned off by a poor teacher, will eventually find a way to manipulate the basic idea of superstring and derive from that the standard model of particles and therefore it will have experimental consequences. There are plenty of experiments around the world in which we live. We've been waiting for this theory now for 400 years and when it comes we'll say Hallelujah!

Now, having found this theory, will this have implications of a technological nature which will influence the great unwashed public?

It's hard to see that. All you can do is, in some sense, cite history. Newton was working on this very abstract thing called gravity. I think he would have been surprised more than anybody as to the great implications of his theory. It changed the way people live on this planet. Including the creation of subjects like mechanical engineering, structural engineering, civil engineering and terrestrial mechanics. The whole structure of the solar system and other solar systems.

The same thing happened with Faraday. I mean where did you electricity in 1820? Ball lighting maybe. And yet, Faraday said, it may be as useful as a newborn baby. Which was very profound. Of course, he also predicted that the government would tax it, and 50 years after Faraday the English government put a tax on electricity.

The history of fundamental breakthroughs is universally a history in which there have been profound technological consequences. If Faraday had to compete with Napoleon for a spot on the six o'clock news he wouldn't have had a chance. Yet the invention of electricity was more profound than all the Napoleons, Genghis Khans and Kings of England rolled into one. You can make the same statement up through the very abstract problems that Planck and later Schroedinger, Bohr and Heisenberg were dealing with when data came out of the atom. Out of that came the quantum theory. According to my congressional testimony that accounts for 62.3% of the GNP. :-) If you don't believe me, go check it. I'm confident you won't be able to. :-)

So, who knows. The curious thing is that 20th century physics rests on two pillars. Two is an unstable number, I know, but we have two pillars. Quantum theory, the theory of the atom and smaller, and relativity, the theory of the cosmos and larger. These two theories are independent most of the time, but where they overlap they are incompatible.

Where do they overlap? The only overlap in our imagination when we think about where the universe began and the big bang. In the big bang the huge vastness of the cosmos was compressed into a space the size of an atom, so you have to use quantum theory and relativity and they are incompatible. Superstrings is a way of substituting these two theories so that we have a viable theory which separates the early universe from when the universe expanded and separated into the big things and the little things.

Will it have implications for our everyday life? Even though it's hard to imagine, my guess is yes. It may have, we can't predict for sure, profound implications for everyday life. but technology is changing our lives so rapidly that I don't think we need new sources.

9) patents by BadERA
Dr. Lederman, What are your thoughts on patents? Particularly, what do you think of the practice of patenting genetic discoveries? Is this not analogous to, and just as ridiculous as, patenting a newly found particle?
Dr. Lederman:

I think all patents are bad... Unless they are mine. :)

Patents of discoveries aren't a good thing. They prevent people from doing more research that expands on the discovery. Think what would have happened if Rutherford had patented the nucleus, or the device used to detect the nucleus. In general they slow further growth on the subject in which they were given.

If they are to exist, they should at least be shorter in duration. Maybe five years or so. The problem is that the tendency seems towards making them last even longer. Companies are able to lobby for the rule changes that benefit them and this leaves the debate on the subject fairly one sided.

10)IMSA +13 years by [Xorian]
While perhaps not everyone here is aware of it, I remember your involvement with the early history of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

[For those who don't know, IMSA is a state-wide, residential magnet school for grades 10-12, with less than 1000 total students. It requires an application, recommendations, and the SAT to gain admittance. While math and science take a prominent place in its name, it also has excellent humanities and social studies programs. The idea was to provide a better educational environment for gifted high school students.]

IMSA, which first opened in 1986, is now halfway through it's thirteenth year. It was an experiment when it was first created. Over the years, it has changed and adapted on a number of levels. Now it's more a fixture of the Illinois educational system.

Certainly, improving the education of future generations is as important and controversial a topic today as it was then. Do you feel that the IMSA experiment was a success? Would you now advocate starting more programs like it in other states? Would you say that, over its 13 year history, the institution has maintained the correct focus, or have they perhaps lost sight of their original goals in order to ensure their own survival and continued funding?

Dr. Lederman:

First of all let me say that there are now 13 similar schools around the country. Which is characterized by being concerned with the gifted kids, as well as you can define giftedness, and giving them very special experiences. I think the IMSA experiment is successful.

It's still early to say because what you would like to see out of this is what they are doing when they are 30 and 40 years old. The first class is just getting to 30 now. Indications are very positive.

About 60% of these kids stay in some scientific field, if we accept medicine as a scientific field, which I do. The rest go into everything. All kinds of things, politics, teaching, Peace Corps. We got a $500,000 gift from one of our students who has something to do with the founding of Netscape. None of them were involved with the recent AOL merger though. So they are involved with all kinds of things.

Now would they have been involved anyway? That's a harder question to answer. The only reliable data you can get, I think, is to ask them, was your high school experience meaningful to you? I meet these kids all over the country and they say, hey, you don't remember but I was IMSA graduate from the third class, and rather uniformly the have an extremely positive opinion of their IMSA life. Some say that it prepared them better for graduate school than for college.

There is a lot of reliance on self learning, very strong emphasis on what you might call the inquiry method. Kids are naturally scientists and in science the IMSA kids are gifted so they are good scientists. They do research. They get experience with research all over the place. I feel positive about it. I'd like to see one of these in every state. In Illinois we have no trouble filling 200 seats in each class. We could probably, without suffering standards, be 50% larger. Maybe not twice as large and that's a medium size state of 10 million or so. I think I could see at least one school like this in most states. In states like California and New York you could have two of them. In fact, New York has the Bronx high school of science.

Taking care of giftedness is a very wise investment because there is no question that society will be paid back for this little extra investment in a small number of kids. One of these kids, there's no question about it statistically, will cure some incredible disease. We don't know which one it is, so we have to treat them all as if they are the one. When you yell at a kid you have to remember that he may be the one to cure, say, senility (said the smiling gray haired gentleman :). 
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