Physicist Who Coined the 'God Particle' and Sold His Nobel Prize to Pay Medical Bills Dies at 96

By Matt Novak on at

Leon Lederman, the former head of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab and winner of the the Nobel Prize in physics in 1988, died at a nursing home in Idaho on October 3rd. He was 96.

Lederman will perhaps best be remembered for coining the phrase “the God particle,” referring to the Higgs boson, which was theorised for decades before it was finally observed in 2012.

Sadly, Lederman had to sell his Nobel Prize in 2015 to help pay for his medical care for dementia, a horrific indictment of the American health care system. The United States is the only advanced wealthy nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee health care to all of its citizens. The Nobel Prize sold for $765,000 to an anonymous buyer online.

“It’s terrible,” Leon’s wife Ellen Lederman told NBC News back in 2015 after they had to sell the Nobel Prize. “It’s really hard. I wish it could be different. But he’s happy. He likes where he lives with cats and dogs and horses. He doesn’t have any problems with anxiety, and that makes me glad that he’s so content.”

From the Associated Press:

Lederman was born July 15, 1922, in New York City, where his father operated a hand laundry. Lederman earned a degree in chemistry from City College of New York in 1943, served three years in the U.S. Army during World War II, and then went to Columbia University where he received a Ph.D. in particle physics in 1951.

He began making discoveries involving subatomic particles, eventually becoming director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Some scientists take issue with the name “God particle” as sensationalistic, but it’s officially part of the international lexicon now, so there’s no changing it. Lederman had a knack for helping the public better understand science, and the complexity of the Higgs boson was no different. [Associated Press]

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