Leon Lederman (1922–2018)

I first met Leon Lederman, who passed away yesterday at the age of 96, when I was eighteen years old. It was the spring of 1999. Leon — “God Particle” pioneer, Nobel laureate, Fermilab director — was assembling a group of young scientists from around the world to travel to Budapest for the World Conference on Science, a forum organized by the UN to consider the state of science in society at the turn of the millennium. Leon was deeply committed to science education and getting young people excited about science. And so he helped organize a satellite meeting — the International Forum of Young Scientists — to hear from young scientists. I was living in Montreal and had just won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a competition Leon actively supported. Needless to say, I jumped at his invitation to Budapest.

I spent my nights and weekends in high school at a government lab doing biochemistry and genetics research — running gels, building vectors, changing growth medium, gazing at fluorescing proteins under the microscope. I was passionate about doing science.

One very memorable evening, standing in the doorway of a packed lecture hall at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, I saw science as something even greater than the discipline and craft I loved so much. Science, I began to appreciate, is a philosophy, methodology, and culture that we created to understand and improve the world; a great social force that moves civilization forward. More than something to be governed, science is a lens through which we can govern. I remember feeling that every person in the world should have the tools to think scientifically — to be science literate— and the potential to use science as a lens. This belief, that only with universal science literacy can we sustainably improve the state of the world, has motivated me and my work ever since; I consider it my life’s mission. And I owe it to Leon for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime at eighteen to shape my worldview.

Later that night, at a hostel by the Danube, I conceived a journal by and for young scientists to share thoughts and ideas about science and society and engage the public in science in new ways. The next day, I gathered a few fellow young scientists and we started laying out plans for the Journal of Young Scientists (JoYS). A year later, we launched JoYS at an event in Montreal. Ever-supportive, Leon made the trip from Chicago to be there with us.

A few years after that, the activist spirit behind JoYS evolved into Seed Magazine.

Thank you for everything, Leon. Rest In Peace.