Leon Lederman, Nobel-Winning Physicist Who Coined the Term 'God Particle,' Dead at 96

Lederman sold his Nobel Prize at auction for $765,000 in 2015 in order to pay for medical bills.

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Oct 4 2018, 7:01pm

Leon on the day he learned he won the Nobel Prize. Image: Fermilab

Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who coined the term “god particle,” died Wednesday at the age of 96. He had struggled with failing health for seven years, causing him to sell his Nobel Prize at auction for $765,000 in 2015 in order to pay for medical bills.

Born in 1922, Lederman earned his bachelor’s in chemistry at the City College of New York before joining the army and serving during World War II, according to the Associated Press. After the war, he earned a PhD in particle physics at Columbia University, where he then became a faculty member.

Lederman went on to become director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, run by the University of Chicago, from 1978 to 1989. When he was still at Columbia, Lederman and his colleagues discovered the muon neutrino, a subatomic particle, and only the second neutrino ever discovered, proving that electrons are not the only neutrino.

In 1988, Lederman and his two colleagues Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for this work. It was around the same time that Lederman coined the phrase “god particle,” referring to the Higgs boson, the particle that composes the energy field that imbues every other particle with mass and was confirmed to exist through experiments done by the large hadron collider at CERN.

Lederman published a book in 1993 called “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question?” and though the term became contentious, Lederman repeatedly emphasized that he meant the term as a way of emphasizing the significance this discovery would hold.

In 2011, Lederman and his wife moved full time into their Idaho cabin that they had purchased with his Nobel Prize money, as Lederman’s health and mental functions started to deteriorate. After he was diagnosed with dementia in 2015, the couple sold his Nobel Prize at an auction to pay medical bills.

"It's terrible," his wife, Ellen, said at the time. "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."

Lederman was only the second living nobel laureate to sell their own prize. Other prizes have been sold by family members after the winner has died.

“Leon gave U.S. and world physicists a step up, a unique facility, a very high-energy collider, and his successors keep working for these things,” former Fermilab Director John Peoples, who worked with Lederman for more than 40 years, said in a press release. “Leon made that happen. He set things in motion.”