Leon Lederman's offer: 'Ask a Nobel Laureate'

January 28, 2012

On a rainy day in September, a crowd gathered outside the Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago. They were waiting in line to take advantage of a rare opportunity: A chance to ask a Nobel Laureate anything and everything they ever wanted to know about science.

In this case, the Nobel Laureate was Leon Lederman. Lederman won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1988 for his role in using particles called neutrinos to expand scientific research about the structure and dynamics of matter. His many accomplishments and accolades include time spent as the head of Fermi Lab and his status as the founder of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora.

For two hours Lederman tackled all kinds of questions from impressively smart, curious and science-savvy passersby. (Their questions were especially impressive if you believe what the media tends to say about how none of us are interested in science.)

An engineer in his late 70s asks for advice on how he could best use science to fight for social justice.

A gamer asks for help understanding how recent discoveries on the structure of a protein in the AIDS virus would help other scientists develop a cure.

A 7th grader asks for input on what kind of experiment she could conduct for her school science fair. She is, she says, “interested in cats.” Perhaps Lederman could suggest a cruelty-free experiment she might conduct with her furry friends?

Unfortunately, for a man who has dedicated much of his life to science education, Lederman seemed to have trouble connecting to some of the answer-seekers that day.

A question from a woman who wanted to know whether we’ll ever see far enough in space to catch a glimpse of the Big Bang went unanswered, as did the request from the 7th grade cat-lover.

But what became clear from many of Lederman’s answers that day was that at age 89 he remains as committed as ever to a scientific method rooted in skeptical inquiry, evidence-based conclusions, and results that can be duplicated. Whether it’s verifying new research that suggests some particles can move faster than the speed of light (Lederman very much doubts these findings) or atheists seeking rebuttals to attacks from their God-fearing friends, Lederman emphasized the need to be suspicious - and to provide your proof.

You can hear him argue on behalf of the scientific method in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Leon Lederman appeared on behalf of Street Corner Science and the Chicago Council on Science and Technology in September of 2011. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.