Nobel laureate occasionally hangs out on street corners, answering physics questions

This morning, I got to spend a little time chatting with Daniel Bowring, a physicist who designs particle accelerators for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. During our conversation, Daniel told me about something really cool. On at least two separate occasions, once in New York City and once in Chicago, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman has basically just set a card table up on a street corner and allowed all comers to bring him their physics questions.

I was imagining something like "Particle Physics Advice: 5 cents", which is a little off. But not by much. In the video above, you can see him in New York, hanging out in front of a wipe board that says "ASK A NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING PHYSICIST!" (Another sign to Lederman's left just has a picture of a model of the atom and an arrow pointing at him.)

It's pretty damn wonderful. And Lederman is great at quickly making physics concepts understandable. Enjoy! (And keep your eyes peeled. I really hope he does this again sometime.)


    1.  I think most serious scientists are happy that the “God Particle” affiliation with the Higgs Boson is largely forgotten. For the general public, the affiliation is far too religious and over-simplifying.

        1. He never wanted to call it that. He wanted to call it the goddamn particle because it was so damn hard to find. It was the publisher that said that was a no-go.

  1. Fantastic. This reminds me of one of my favourite random encounters. While on an extended road trip through country Australia, my girlfriend and I met a Ukrainian nuclear physicist and his family who were three years into their own road trip. While talking about his work on particle accelerators, under the warm starry sky, I had the chance to ask all the physics questions that bug a non-scientist. 

    At one point, I asked him “There are particles whose behaviour can only be explained if you assume they move backwards through time, is that right?”, and he replied that this is true, so I asked him “Well, does that mean they ARE moving backwards through time?” and I’ll never forget his reply.
    “Of course they are! Everything in physics is symmetrical! Haven’t you noticed?”.

  2. I spent a summer at Fermilab in high school, and one day snuck out of the program and tracked down Dr. Lederman in his office.  The door was closed, and I tentatively asked a woman sitting outside if  the professor might be available for just a quick autograph.  She stared at me for a second, stood up, and yelled, “LEEEEOOON!”  Then she sat down and told me, “I think he’s in the can.”
    The nobel-prize-winning physicist emerged from said can a moment later.  He gave me a big smile and shook my hand.  I asked him for an autograph, and he said, in a voice with what I took to be a thick foreign accent, “I’m very sorry I can’t speak with you right now.”  He scribbled his name on the paper, and continued, “I just got back from the dentist and my mouth hurts like a motherfucker.”  At least I think that’s what he said, as there was clearly a lot of novocain involved.
    Big smile, another handshake, and a great reminder that heroes can be nice normal human beings too.

  3. Back when I was an undergraduate in the 80’s Dr Lederman taught a “physics for poets” class at the U of Chicago (which required all students to take three terms of physical science, among many other things).  How angry was my boyfriend, a physics major, that I go to have him as a prof!  Allegedly, Dr Lederman would *only* teach undergraduates who were not physics majors, because it was a more interesting challenge.   At any rate, he was an excellent teacher and it was a wonderful class.

    I wonder if he still teaches that class?

  4. Le-on!
    You don’t have to put out the red light
    Those days are over, you don’t have to give your brains to the night
    You don’t have to wear that nice jacket tonight
    Walk the streets teaching physics
    You don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right

  5. This is great. I’m but a layman, but I have a question I’m burning to ask a theoretical physicist: Is it possible that there is no dark energy, but rather the cause behind the accelerating expansion of the universe is that space time is flattening as the universe expands and gravitational warping of the fabric of space time weakens over distance? Could this acceleration eventually approach the speed of light and everything just become energy? I’d be interested if anyone wants to take a shot at those questions.

    1.  I’m no cosmologist, but I’m willing to bet somebody already tried that idea and it didn’t work.  Dark energy isn’t a matter of faith – it’s an ugly corner the data forced physics into.  I think most physicists would be happier if everything was Newtonian – but that damned data keeps misbehaving!

      1. I know it appears simple, but I’ve never seen anything that addressed the issues. Sometimes, even scientists can overlook the simplest explanations.  

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