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Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (1932-2007)

The news of the death of charismatic physicist, Nobel laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, on 18 May has brought sadness to the worldwide scientific community. 

Pierre-Gilles de Gennes
Pierre-Gilles de Gennes: the founding father of soft matter

De Gennes was born in Paris, France, in 1932. He received his PhD on magnetism in 1957 at the Saclay Centre of the Atomic Energy Commission, near Paris, which led to postdoctoral training with Charles Kittel at the University of California, Berkeley, US. In 1961 he became a professor at the University of Paris in Orsay, where he set up a group working on superconductivity. He made seminal contributions to surface superconductivity, and wrote the classic book Superconductivity of metals and alloys.  

In later years, his research interests shifted between different fields of condensed matter physics including liquid crystals, polymers, colloids, interfacial phenomena of wetting and adhesion, and most recently to granular materials and brain science. In each of these areas, he practiced the magic of pulling elegant physics from a collection of data that would appear to be incoherent.  

In 1968, he started his transformative work on liquid crystals. His famous analogy of the smectic-A liquid crystal with superconductors brought out the universal commonality between these diverse phenomena manifesting in chemically very different materials. He followed this with another masterpiece, The physics of liquid crystals, which shaped the future of the field. Subsequently, he made critical contributions to the fields of polymers, colloids, and interfacial problems of wetting and adhesion. Particularly remarkable are his solution of the self-avoidance problem in polymers and the theory of reptation (describing the reptilian-like motion of entangled polymers). He had the uncanny ability of pulling complex physics out of simple observations and simple concepts out of a clutter of data. 

De Gennes started his academic career as an assistant professor at Orsay in 1968 and became professor at the College de France in 1971. He served as the director of the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris (ESPCI) from 1976 to 2002. Well known scientists, including Pierre and Marie Curie, Georges Claude, Paul Langevin, and George Charpak have also been associated with the institution. 

He was a member of the French Academy of Sciences, the Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences, US. De Gennes received numerous prizes including the 1991 Nobel prize in physics for discovering that methods developed for studying order phenomena in simple systems can be generalised to more complex forms of matter, in particular to liquid crystals and polymers. After the Nobel, de Gennes relished sharing his own excitement about science, innovation, and common sense with students through his approximately 200 visits to high schools in a period of roughly two years. 

His sense of humour was infectious. True to his playful nature, he extended the fundamental research on wetting to help improve the growing of grapes for wine. He wrote more than twelve books that are widely read and referenced including a satirical book Petit point: A candid portrait on the aberrations of science. Researchers all over the world and across the sciences continue to draw inspiration from his work and from his life. Numerous dissertation and research papers are based on experimental tests of his theories, thoughts, and even short conversations. 

He was among the giants in physics and a beacon to the field of liquid crystals. What the Nobel prize meant to him, he is quoted to have said, 'did not entail being right all the time. It was rather to dare, to propose new ideas, and then to verify them and to know how to admit errors.'  

Satyendra Kumar, president of the International Liquid Crystal Society