Neutrinos, Quarks and Leon Lederman

by Nicholas Mee on November 9, 2018

Leon Lederman (1922-2018)

Leon Lederman died at the age of 96 on 3 October 2018. Lederman was one of the leading particle physicists of the twentieth century and a key architect of the Standard Model.

Working with Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger at Brookhaven Laboratory in New York in 1962, Lederman was co-discoverer of the second type of neutrino—the muon neutrino.

The neutrino was originally postulated by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930. Radioactive nuclei such as carbon-14 undergo beta decay in which a neutron in the nucleus of the atom is transformed into a proton and a high energy electron is emitted. Pauli proposed that an (anti-)neutrino is emitted along with the electron, escaping with some of the released energy. Neutrinos interact very weakly, so it was not until 1956 that this idea was confirmed experimentally using the flux of neutrinos produced by a nuclear power station.

The neutrinos produced in beta decay are associated with electrons. On the very rare occasions when they interact with a neutron, the neutron transforms into a proton and the neutrino transforms into an electron. Lederman, Schwartz and Steinberger showed that there was another type of neutrino that is associated with the muon—a particle discovered in 1936 that behaves like a very heavy electron. The muon carries the same charges as an electron and interacts in the same way as an electron, but has 207 times as much mass.

The particles of the Standard Model.

These particles are now collected together into the Standard Model table of particles. The electron and the first type of neutrino—the electron neutrino—belong to the first generation, and the muon and muon neutrino are their relatives in the second generation. Lederman, Schwartz and Steinberger were awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the muon neutrino.

Lederman went on to work at Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory), which is located near Chicago. In 1977 he led the team that discovered the bottom quark, which was the first quark to be discovered in the third generation of matter particles. The following year Lederman was appointed Director of Fermilab, a position he held until 1989.

Fermilab (Credit: FNAL)

Fermilab would go on to discover the other missing matter particles of the Standard Model with its record-breaking Tevatron collider. The discovery of the top quark was announced in 1995 and the existence of the third generation neutrino—the tauon neutrino—was established in the year 2000. The only missing particle predicted by the Standard Model was now the Higgs boson.

Lederman was a strong advocate for a plan to build an enormous particle accelerator in Texas known as the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). In an attempt to persuade the doubters in Congress, Lederman and Dick Teresi published a book in 1993 called The God Particle, Lederman’s dubious nickname for the Higgs boson. Unfortunately the SSC project was cancelled. If it had gone ahead it is very likely that the Higgs boson would have been discovered in America and not Europe.

Further Information

A video version of this tribute is available here: A Tribute to Leon Lederman on The Cosmic Mystery Tour YouTube Channel. Please don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel.


There is a lot more about Fermilab, the development of the standard model and the history of particle physics in my book Higgs Force.



The Cosmic Mystery Tour

by Nicholas Mee on October 20, 2018

My new book The Cosmic Mystery Tour is an illustrated account of cutting-edge science with brief stories of the quirky characters who made it possible.

The universe is full of wondrous and beautiful places, but this is not just a sight-seeing trip. We will investigate how the universe works. What makes it tick! It is a spiritual quest to find deep meaning in the cosmos—a concise, but accurate description of the world that accounts for all the amazing features it contains.

This is the flyer that Oxford University Press have produced to promote The Cosmic Mystery Tour. The official publication date is early 2019, but the book will be available at the following book signing events:

Saturday 15 December (from 12.15pm) at Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.
Sunday 16 December (from 1.00pm) at The Science Museum, London.

We explore many hot topics such as the recent discovery of gravitational waves and their role in explaining where the gold in the ring on your finger came from. The answer is quite incredible. All will be revealed.

I am happy to be your personal tour guide as we visit the astonishing bodies that make up the universe; red giants, white dwarfs, neutron stars and the ultimate mystery—the supermassive black hole lurking at the centre of the galaxy.

Finally, we consider the possibility that life might exist elsewhere, exploring the cosmos from the outer fringes of science fiction to the ongoing search for alien civilizations. We are edging closer to resolving the eternal questions about humanity’s relationship to the cosmos.

We have solved many mysteries, but many more remain!

These are some endorsements of the book:

‘A wide-ranging and imaginative introduction to the cosmos that will appeal to the armchair astronomer (or astronaut).’
Ian Ridpath, Editor, Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy

‘That the seemingly endless mysteries of the cosmos are gradually being not merely revealed but also understood is an exciting voyage in science: that excitement is captured by this lucid and accessible account of almost everything there is.’
Peter Atkins, University of Oxford

‘Careful explanations made relevant by being woven into a cultural background – from ancient myths to science fiction via real historical settings. A very entertaining read.’
Jennifer Coopersmith, Author, Energy, the Subtle Concept and The Lazy Universe

The book is listed on Amazon here: The Cosmic Mystery Tour.

A video version of this post is now available on The Cosmic Mystery Tour YouTube Channel here: The Cosmic Mystery Tour. Please don’t forget to click the subscribe button.


A Cartographic Conundrum

September 10, 2018

In the Victorian era the British were fond of watching the pink of their empire spread outwards across maps of the world. A rather perceptive young student Francis Guthrie noticed something rather surprising while colouring the counties on a map of England. It seemed that no more than four colours were ever required to colour […]

Read the full article →

The Generation Game

June 10, 2018

In 2012 CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, the final missing fundamental particle of the standard model. But many mysteries remain. Atoms consist of a tiny nucleus composed of protons and neutrons surrounded by a swarm of orbiting electrons. Protons are formed of two up quarks and one down quark bound together, whereas […]

Read the full article →

Burning Down the House

May 21, 2018

In 1998 two students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, studying for PhDs in computer science at Stanford University, California founded a new tech company called Google. The company was based on an algorithm they had invented and incorporated into a new search engine—the Google browser. Less than two decades later Google is valued at well […]

Read the full article →

The Chamber of Secrets

April 29, 2018

By the mid-1930s, just five fundamental particles were known. This concise collection of building blocks revealed the true nature of matter and light. Three types of particle: electrons, protons and neutrons, form the wide array of atoms known to chemistry, and the whole electromagnetic spectrum including light is composed of photons. The fifth particle is […]

Read the full article →

Hawking Crosses the Event Horizon

March 22, 2018

Stephen Hawking died on 14 March 2018. As a student in the 1960s he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given just two years to live. Confounding these predictions, he lived to become the world’s most famous scientist since Einstein. His incredible determination to succeed in the face of any obstacle and his drive to […]

Read the full article →

Hawking Radiation

March 19, 2018

What is the connection between a steam engine and a collapsed star? Not much, you might think. There is, however, a very deep and subtle connection that is still not completely understood. Brewing Up New Theories of Physics James Prescott Joule, the son of a wealthy Manchester brewer, was taught physics by John Dalton, famous […]

Read the full article →

The Pale Blue Dot

March 7, 2018

Voyager I was launched by NASA in September 1977, on course for the outer solar system and beyond. Carl Sagan realised the mission was an opportunity to highlight the immensity of the cosmos and acquire a new perspective on our place within it. After some persuasion, NASA agreed and in 1990 Voyager’s cameras were directed […]

Read the full article →

All for One and One for All

February 10, 2018

In days of old, when knights were bold, it was essential that a knight should bear an elegant mathematical symbol on his coat of arms. Well, perhaps not, but at least the Borromeo family used a design that is well known to mathematicians. The coat of arms of the Borromeo family of merchants and bankers […]

Read the full article →