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So-so Student, Nobel Prize-Winner

Particle physicist Leon Lederman credits dedication and imagination for his success., INTERVIEW

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AS particle physicist Leon M. Lederman remembers it, he wasn't naturally good with his hands. As a youngster growing up in the Depression years in New York City, he wasn't all that curious about how things worked. He wasn't a very good student. He found math difficult. His first year as a graduate student in physics at Columbia University was terrible. So he applied to transfer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - and was refused. And then, in 1988, he shared the Nobel Prize in physics for his 1962 discovery of a second neutrino, an elementary subatomic particle.

What got him launched and kept him going? In an interview in his office at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which he directed from 1979 until earlier this year, he points to the people who spurred him on.

Two things happened, he recalls, when he was 10 years old. First, one day when he was sick in bed, his father brought him a book co-authored by Albert Einstein about relativity. ``It started out comparing physics to a detective story,'' he says, ``and it was in big print. That's very important at ten years old.

``The other thing was a front-page article in the New York Times about the winning of the Nobel Prize by Carl Anderson for discovering the positron. It told how he took a cloud chamber to the top of a mountain. And that was the most romantic thing I could think of - to drag some instrument up there and see something.''

His brother, he says, never finished high school. But he was good with his hands and did a lot of home experimenting with a chemistry set. ``He used to get me to do the chores,'' Dr. Lederman recalls.

Later, during high school, Lederman began hanging around the chemistry lab with ``three or four friends'' after school. The lab assistant was ``a lively guy who let us fool around and blow glass.'' It was these friendships, more than any conceptual fascination, that kept his interest in science alive.


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