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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, un physicien touche-à-tout

by Vincent Defait

Obituary : Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, a Multi-talented Doctor

Translated Saturday 26 May 2007, by Carol Gullidge

A true renaissance man, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes was also modest and athletic. He won many prizes, including the Lorentz Medal and the Wolf Prize, as well as the 1991 Nobel Prize in Physics. On hearing the Nobel committee’s accolade of "the Isaac Newton of our time", he merely laughed off this description. One of his many talents was the ability to explain complex concepts in terms that can be understood by everybody - a gift that he put to good use in the latter years of his life.

Death. The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize died last Friday. He also carried out research in chemistry and biology.

Doctor Pierre-Gilles de Gennes died on Friday, 18 May, his family announced on Tuesday. This versatile scientist had received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1991. Unusually, the Swedish assembly, who at that time dubbed him “the Isaac Newton of our time”, had awarded the prize to him alone, breaking with the tradition of awarding it to a pair or trio of researchers. A renaissance man, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes received this distinction for his work on order phenomena in complex organisms.

Born in Paris on 24 October 1932, he was an engineer at the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in 1955, before becoming Professor at the Faculty of Science at Orsay from 1961 to 1971. He was then appointed to the Chair of Condensed Matter Physics at the Collège de France, before directing the École supérieure de physique et chimie industrielles de la Ville de Paris from 1976 to 2002, and went on to rejoin the Curie Institute, at seventy, putting physics and chemistry aside to dedicate himself to biology. Meanwhile, he had become a member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1979.

His work led, among other things, to the manufacture of flat screens used for televisions and computers, as well as to the development of superglues, without which materials long considered “ungluable” could never be put together.

When we met him in 2003 for an issue of the weekly l’Humanité Hebdo that was dedicated to the Curie couple, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes left us with the impression of a man hungry for knowledge. With his deep voice, and puffing heavily on his cigarillos, the Nobel laureate talked tirelessly about the current trends in science: that which takes place in the labs. True to this spirit, he tackled domains as varied as hydrodynamics, superconductivity, polymers, and liquid crystals. He also – with his Nobel Prize under his belt – went back to school, between 1992 and 1994, to give talks to pupils in secondary schools.

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