Nobel Laureate Leon M. Lederman, now director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, presented the whirlwind crash course in a talk, "Miletus to the SuperCollider (With a Pause at the Big Bang)," that was the fourth in the Rustgi Memorial Lecture series. The discoverer of the muon neutrino and the bottom quark addressed an SRO crowd in Room 201 of the Natural Sciences Building.
He noted that it was in Miletus, an ancient city on the west coast of Asia Minor, that the basic ideas of science had their roots.
"Let's start science," Lederman quipped, alleging to quote some of the prominent thinkers of the day.
And so mythology, which he described as "the best science of the time and a literature of splendid proportion and depth," was put aside in favor of a logical explanation to the world.
Specifically, leading philosophers sought an underlying simplicity, which he said remains the guiding principle of physics today.
"Around 400 B.C., Democritus had the notion of a primary substance too small to see, which underlaid the structure of all matter," he said.
Democritus called that substance atomos, which means "that which cannot be cut."
From the development of that idea in Greece, Lederman went on to chronicle the achievements of the Renaissance and the road science has since taken.
"Zooming down the reductionist road, physicists then zoomed into the nucleus, using technologies developed in World War II," he said. "By studying the debris coming off the nucleus, they could understand the forces in the nucleus."
But, as seems to be the case in physics, simplicity is elusive and these collisions created many new particles.
"The new particles didn't live for very long, but they were great for graduate students," he chuckled, noting that each new particle represented at least one physics doctoral dissertation.
"The Greeks had said that as you go down in structure, you will find simplicity, but here was this ugly mess," Lederman said.
Further studies led physicists to the discovery that many of these new particles were actually collections of more elementary particles called quarks, which, along with leptons, are still believed to be the most elementary particles underlying matter.
Lederman concluded his talk with a discussion of the joining of particle physics and cosmology, studies that he said will help unravel the earliest moments of the universe.
"All the data consistent with the standard model show that about 10-15 billion years ago, all matter was compressed and exploded in the Big Bang," he said. "So if you run the film backwards, all things will coalesce to a single point."
The Rustgi Memorial Lecture series is supported by contributions from the Rustgi family and their friends to honor the late Moti Lal Rustgi, who was a faculty member in the Department of Physics.