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Leon Lederman, physicist and Nobel laureate, fields questions on science from a street-corner outside the Wrigley Building.

Chicago Nobel laureate puts his big brain on the line, taking questions on everything from neutrinos to hot dogs

Sep 27, 2011

Simone Garratt wanted tips on a topic to explore for her science fair project.

The seventh-grader from Andersonville hopes to try something new and cutting-edge, beyond the traditional three-plant experiment. You know — one plant goes in the shade, one in sunlight and one in room light, and you see which grows the fastest.

So, Simone, 12, trekked through Saturday’s rain to the Wrigley Building to go straight to the top for an answer — physicist and Nobel laureate Leon Lederman.

“I asked him if he had any good suggestions for a project we could do,” Simone said. “He suggested the plant experiment.”

This was the second year the Chicago Council on Science and Technology invited the popular Nobel laureate to meet with passers-by. For two hours, people waited in line to ask a single question of the physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1988 for his work with neutrinos, near massless particles without a charge that breeze through matter almost as though it isn't there. These near massless particles can be useful in probing for clues about environments such as the core of the Sun.

And any question under the Sun could be brought to Lederman: Why is the sky blue? Why do objects in motion stay in motion? Why do birds suddenly appear?

People asked Lederman whatever they liked, though his specialty is subatomic science. After neutrinos associated with electrons were discovered, Lederman discovered a second kind associated with the muon, itself an unstable charged particle that splinters off from cosmic rays.

Earlier this month, physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) reported an observation that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light. If the observation is confirmed, it could throw a microscopic wrench into Einstein’s theory of relativity, where the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second.

Bill McDowell said he has held Lederman in high esteem for a number of years. He was among many who picked Lederman’s brain on the CERN research.

Lederman decided to let the CERN finding go because the data were not secure. Many people asked him about the neutrino finding, and he didn't want to make a big fuss about it in the middle of Michigan Avenue.

"We decided that the results were not convincing," he said. "I think the notion is that there's no absolutely firm announcement made by unimpeachable sources but, with a little patience, the truth will emerge eventually."

The truth, he asserts, will maintain that the speed of light outraces the speed of neutrinos every time. 

“That’s sort of my attitude, too, for this particular thing,” McDowell said. “There are some unsubstantiated reports about this, but it’s blown-up everywhere.”

The purpose of the event is for people to see the intersection of science and their daily lives, council president Alan Schriesheim said. So here was Lederman, accessible on a street-corner near the Chicago River rather than high on a podium.

You get the chance to ask the scientist, a Nobel laureate, a question for free,” council webmaster Sharon McGrown said. “How many times do you get that opportunity?

Jeff Scurry lives in the city and brought his 8-year-old daughter, Josephine, to the event. Josephine shyly remained close to dad’s side. But Scurry came with purpose: he planned to ask how he could instill the best science instruction in her, even though his own background is not in science.

"He said essentially, 'Make sure she's going to a good school, make sure she's getting the science education she should be getting,'" Scurry said.

Lederman offered Scurry another piece of advice: Josephine might benefit from a science tutor such as a graduate student, he said, punctuating his comment with a sweep of his arm that suggested to Scurry just how many such tutors might be found milling about.

Lederman said the toughest questions aren’t ones that involve erudite language but the ones that seem to abandon language altogether. “Many questions are difficult because they’re not coherent,” he said. “In some sense, you have to know a lot before you can ask good questions.”

There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation when Lederman was asked what he would put on his Chicago-style hot dog.

“Mustard, and I would put on it SAUERKRAUT!”