Robert Cotner, Editor


he entrance to the Newberry Library, one of the most remarkable libraries of its kind in America, is a splendid visual metaphor for the function of the book in human life.

It appears as a richly sculpted Romanesque entrance to a tunnel, through which one is invited to proceed deeply into an unknown and unfamiliar region. Libraries are like that, if we let them be. They are entrees to the most profound deepening known to humankind. Properly used, good libraries permit us to explore vast depths of intellectual and spiritual domains never envisioned outside of their walls nor unavailable in any other social enterprise — including the electronic. Great libraries do on a large scale what great books do on a smaller scale.

Of the one hundred or so books that I have read in the past year, one stands out as supremely representative of that toward which I’m driving. That book is The God Particle (1994), by Nobel Laureate (in Physics), Leon Lederman. Here is a book that, without sacrificing the richness, texture, and depth of the domain, offers the non-professional physicist opportunity to experience the pleasures of the search for the invisible particle — the God particle.

Lederman, director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL, from 1979 until 1989, now lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, teaches at Illinois Institute of Technology, and fulfills his passion to empower young scholars through experiences in science by working in public schools when and wherever possible. Much of his Nobel grant has been committed to the enrichment of young minds in scientific enterprises, from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, of which he is considered the founder, to the public schools of Chicago, where he spends considerable time and resources working with children.

In reading The God Particle, am first struck by the perspicacious mind of Lederman. With uncommon wit and unexpected grace, he takes what may be one of the most complex intellectual domains known and brings enjoyment, if not complete understanding, in the study of electrons, protons, muons, hadrons, and their relationships in the sub-atomic realm.

He takes us on an historical tour, from 5th Century B.C. Greece to tomorrow’s scientific news. We listen in on Lederman’s delightful, imaginary conversation with Democritus, when the two meet in the second-floor control room of Fermilab late one night — Lederman clad in his pajamas. Democritus informs Lederman (and us) of his early theory of the “a-tom” and what it meant to the Classical world. Lederman then tells him (and us) what he and his colleagues have done with the concept of the atom in the particle world of modern physics.

We meet all of the personages of Western science and learn that the movement has been from the macro- to the microcosm — from the cosmos to the quark. The brilliance of Lederman’s history is that it is so superbly understandable, so thoroughly readable. Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Faraday, and the whole host of scientists who forged through their labors the world as we know it today were his friends, whom Lederman knew with such intimacy that he could even joke with them across the centuries — and give us delight in the wryness of his mind.

The intimacy increases as Lederman moves into the 1950s, when he became a significant participant in the development of modern physics, winning the Nobel Prize in 1988. What strikes me — beyond his marvelous understanding of sub-atomic physics — is the depth of his perceptions and his human understanding. A few sentences from his description of Fermilab as a working laboratory will illustrate what I mean: “Buried 30 feet beneath the prairie and describing a circle four miles around lies a stainless steel tube just a few inches in diameter…. Through this ring, protons race at near-light-speed velocities to their annihilation in head-to-head confrontations with their brethren antiprotons. These collisions momen-tarily generate temperatures of about 10,000 trillion degrees above absolute zero, vastly higher than those found at the core of the sun or in the furious explosions of a supernova. Scientists here are time travelers more legitimate than those you’ll find in science fiction movies. The last time such temperatures were ‘natural’ was a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the birth of the universe.”

The journey to today has been from the outer to the inner, from the surface of things to depths beyond which our most sophisticated optical devices can peer. A grand new kind of faith is necessary and a new kind of cooperative endeavor is required — call it love, if you choose. Through Lederman’s vision, we may indeed have at our very doorstep the fusion of three mortal enemies: science, art, and religion. There is hope in this possibility, but its fulfillment will require a vital intelligence among all our people. This is the challenge of America at the beginning of the 21st Century: all who would understand us must know the depth of our daring, the profundity of our pursuits, the exhilaration of our expectations.

View images of Fermilab.

Return to Caxtonian table of contents

Return to the Caxton Club home page