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Dr. Lederman, the luckiest Nobel prize winner July 13, 2008

Posted by dorigo in books, personal, physics, science.
Tags: , , , ,

One of the many good things of being on vacation is that I find the time for light reading. No, not novels – those take too much time! I mean books that, in a way or another, have something to do with my job, but have nonetheless rested on a waiting list for months.

One such book, which accompanied me to Sardinia, is “The Rise of the Standard Model“, by L. Hoddeson, L. Brown, M. Riordan, and M. Dresden (eds.), Cambridge UP 1997. It is a collection of pieces from the main characters in the history of the discoveries that brought, during the sixties and the seventies, to the universal acceptance of the unified theory of electroweak interactions and its merging with strong interactions.

Today, laid on a reclining chair on the side of the pool where my kids kept swimming like little fishes for a whole afternoon, I enjoyed reading Leon Lederman’s contribution, centered of course on the discovery of the fifth quark. In it, Leon comes clean with his belief -which I totally share- that a successful discovery in particle physics requires as the main ingredient a disproportionate amount of luck.

Leon explains that the discovery of the Upsilon mesons -particles decaying to pairs of muons which were immediately recognized in 1977 as bound states of a new quark-antiquark pairs- was done twice: the first time when he and his colleagues were fooled into dubbing “Upsilon” a pile of background events eerily piling up at a reconstructed mass of 6 GeV. He also readily explains, with a good display of modesty, that by the time he got convinced that what had initially appeared as another fluctuation at 9.5 GeV was really a new resonance, a bottle of Mumm champagne with a big “9.5” handwritten on it by “super-postdoc” John Yoh had rested in a fridge for many long months already.

Luck did play a part in Lederman’s Nobel prize. He has been a very skilled and brilliant particle physicist, but for every Lederman there are a hundred unnamed individuals of no less insight and capacity, who lacked the good fortune of being at the right moment in the right place.

In any case what I found most surprising was the very beginning of Lederman’s piece, where he makes the case against himself strong and unrefutable. In 1968, Lederman had been conducting an experiment in Brookhaven which reconstructed the mass of muon pairs in proton collisions against a fixed target. In his own words,

“I was so excited bythe properties of virtual photos that we decided to study them specifically and we set up this ingeniously stupid detector in order to study muon pairs.[…] the simple Brookhaven apparatus was so dumb that there was no way you could change it to improve the resolution even a little bit. Every element was designed to match the distorsions generated by multiple scattering in ten feet of steel. This took a minimum of thought, so no matter what you did you were stuck with 15% resolution.”

The lousy mass resolution turned thousands of J/Psi meson decays to dimuon pairs resonating at 3.09 GeV into a broad, featureless shoulder in a falling mass distribution:

“I think that after the shock of seeing Ting’s data, I sent around a note saying that any apparatus that can convert this towering peak to our mound of rubble should be proscribed by SALT talks.”

Lederman had the charm discovery in his own hands six full years before the November 1974 revolution, but he claims he had designed the detector stupidly, and so all he got named after him was a shoulder!

“IF our mass resolution had been 10% […] This experiment, properly carried out, would have produced results that won five Nobel prizes!”

I think this is remarkable! Nature -for once not a bitch- must have liked Leon so much that she gave him a second chance: he had failed her miserably on the fourth quark, but by the time the fifth showed up, he did know better after all.



1. Anonymous - July 13, 2008

Reminds me of the CMS tracker 😉

2. D - July 14, 2008

“He has been a very skilled and brilliant particle physicist, but for every Lederman there are a hundred unnamed individuals of no less insight and capacity, who lacked the good fortune of being at the right moment in the right place.”

Do you think there are analogous effects for theorists as well?

3. John Ryan Recabar - July 14, 2008

we tend to see things in a monologous way. apparently, luck (or the lack thereof) has so much to do with the composition of the Nobel laureates. I’m not saying, however, that scientific expertice, perseverance, etc. are out of the picture. But all thing being equal, fate favors the lucky man.

4. dorigo - July 14, 2008

Anon, the CMS tracker is one of the most daring construction efforts since the birth of particle detectors. It reaches a resolution of a few microns on the position of track intersection with the silicon layers, and the momentum resolution is of the order of 1% for a 10 GeV track. So whatever your mind recalls of CMS in hearing of Lederman’s 1968 apparatus, it is a flawed association.

D, I think theorists also to some extent have to be lucky in order to strike gold with their research. However, the effect there is much dampened, because the space factor is not an issue – sure, if one is hired with a well-defined assignment then he or she will have trouble moving to something he finds more compelling and promising, but this is a much looser constraint than being tied to an apparatus that has no way to see something new.

John, as you put it it would be equally true for any human activity. I think there is some intrinsic aleatory factor which, in the specific field of experimental particle physics, far outweighs other factors.


5. goffredo - July 15, 2008

characteristics of creative thinking, and, I would add, serendipity:
knowledge, obsession, daring

6. changcho - July 15, 2008

Thanks for the brief review.

May the goddess of luck smile on you too!

7. dorigo - July 17, 2008

Hi Changcho,

thank you a lot… I consider myself lucky already. My first two analyses were “first obsevations”… Of course, not nobel prize class stuff, but still quite satisfactory results! And the highest satisfaction to me is being able to look at the data: it is always a new discovery to me.


8. rutger - July 23, 2008

and his books are very interesting, look it ….amazing one !!

9. Upsilon polarization: a surprise from D0 « A Quantum Diaries Survivor - August 27, 2008

[…] Any questions ? Of course, the three Upsilon(1S), (2S), (3S) states merge together in a broad bump in the D0 signal plot, while they stand each on their own in the CDF plot. That’s resolution, baby. Muon momentum resolution is a thing on which Nobel prizes are done and undone. […]

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