Heroes Hero

My Wife, Ellen Lederman

by Leon Lederman

Okay, so my hero is my wife, Ellen.

My wife as hero? How did that happen? It's not her subscription seats at the Lyric or her total recall of who starred in Nabucco. She does have the marvelous ability to forget my jokes, laughing uproariously even though she's heard them over and over again. Is her rare failure of judgment in seeming to admire me what got her nominated? Could the charm of that miscalculation have entrapped me?

Before casting the definitive vote for My Hero, I considered the other candidates. Of course, being a physicist, I thought immediately of my glorious heritage, people like Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, and others. Yes, each of these could be My Hero, because from each of them (and others, too) we learned about a crucial element in the structure of our physical universe. When you read their biographies, you are struck by how human they were, and the more I read about their battles with colleagues within a system that suffered their individual revolutions poorly, the more I set my own ambitions in their direction.

I also considered those legends I have known firsthand, and who have inspired me personally, like my mentor at Columbia, I. I. Rabi. Teacher, philosopher, and master of the hallway course Charisma 101, he strode the corridors of power with a vision and made it easy for me (and others like me) to do important work. Richard Feynman was the greatest of our contemporary physicists, a beloved and crazy personality, and a true influence. Legends all.

There were also my scientific colleagues to consider--lifelong friends who helped me in our classes and who would inspire me with their depth of understanding during the time that I was relentlessly drowning in a sea of incomprehension. I thank and respect them for their friendship and advice and calming influence, as well as for their capacity for fun. They made the laboratory not just an intellectual foxhole, but the place for a fierce, after-dinner Ping-Pong game--a place of pleasure and joy. Why not these heroes?

Or another possibility--a hero not just to the citizens of Chicago, but internationally: the unearthly Michael Jordan. To watch him was ballet, a combination of aerodynamics and sheer magic. Can any of us forget the pleasure he gave us? Were his achievements any less dramatic and important than the tensions and expectation we find in a late Beethoven quartet? He made us want to win, and when it seemed impossible, he went on to show us how.

So how did I come to choose otherwise? Why, with all these candidates, did I choose HER?

Leon and Ellen Lederman enjoy a Nobel event. ((Thanks to Leon Lederman for this photo.))
Leon and Ellen Lederman enjoy a Nobel event. ((Thanks to Leon Lederman for this photo.))

She is a horse person, which means she goes from tossing down 60-pound bales of hay to cleaning stalls, from giving injections, to pacifying a terrified animal to riding fearlessly for hours along narrow tracks in the Teton Mountains with Sudden Death Canyon on one side. And then, equally fearlessly, she steers the essentials of the dinner party--the table artfully set, six innovative but matched courses, even with no advance notice! (You should taste her sweetbreads or osso bucco.) When our guests arrive, she is organized, dressed to kill, and a natural diplomat as the laureates and novelists and senior government officials take their seats and begin their profound insights into the workings of the physical universe, human consciousness, and necessary cuts in the research budgets. No matter who has shown up in the procession of visitors over the course of our life together, she has charmingly forged casual and informal relationships with them, and has made them feel at home, just as she has always made me feel.

She's a continual learner, and her intellectual curiosity is endlessly renewing itself--and feeding my own. An art photographer, she sets up her tripod and camera and tells me to look through the lens. I don�t see what she sees until the black and white print appears, and then I become aware of hidden patterns, symmetries and near symmetries, a range of shades from the darkest black--no, there are still discernable shapes in the deepest black--to a brilliant white that can't be due only to the passive photo paper.

Her curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for life open the door for me every day to vistas I might never otherwise have experienced, and makes our every day together a renewal. Perhaps it is this capacity to surprise--to show me what I can't see, and to find something hidden and fascinating in every new person and experience--that makes my wife heroic in my eyes. It's certainly how such an intense love can be maintained for so long and be continuously renewed, not just by life's pleasures, but by its crises as well.

Yes, maybe that.

Page created on 8/31/2006 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 8/31/2006 12:00:00 AM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Extra Info

Copyright 2005 by The My Hero Project

MY HERO thanks Leon Lederman for contributing this essay to My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.

Thanks to Free Press for reprint rights of the above material.



Author Info

About Dr. Leon Lederman

When not revolutionizing what we know about the physical world, Dr. Leon Max Lederman has devoted much of his prodigious energy and brilliance to improving the state of scientific education in America.

Born in New York City, Dr. Lederman attended public schools and the City College of New York. After receiving his master�s degree and doctorate from Columbia University, he stayed on as a professor there, and eventually led the Nevis Laboratories, their center for experimental research in high-energy physics. In 1956, he discovered a new particle; in 1962, with the research that would eventually garner his team a Nobel Prize in Physics, he identified two different types of the particles called neutrinos. In 1978, Lederman became Director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, supervising the construction and use of the world�s most powerful atom-smasher.

The citations he has received for his scientific brilliance are almost too numerous to list. Dr. Lederman is the recipient of fellowships from the Ford, Guggenheim, Ernest Kepton Adams and National Science Foundations. He was a founding member of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy, and the International Committee on Future Accelerators. He has received the National Medal of Science (1965) and the Wolf Prize for Physics (1982), among many other awards and honorary degrees. His astonishing career culminated in receiving the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics with Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger.

To learn more about Leon Lederman, click HERE.

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