Pierre-Gilles de Gennes: A Life in Science,

World Scientific
Hackensack, NJ
, 2011. $48.00 (372 pp.). ISBN 978-981-4355-25-4 (paper)

Pierre-Gilles de Gennes was one of the greatest scientists in the modern era of physics. Single-handedly, he revolutionized the way we think about such complex day-to-day phenomena as how liquids stick to surfaces; how viscous, solid-like polymers flow; how liquid crystals organize to enable display devices; and how pockets of oil, once knitted together by percolation, can be squeezed from submerged wells. By combining microscopic descriptions and a superb mastery of theoretical-physics tools, he portrayed the macroscopic properties of complex systems with poetic elegance. He was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Physics for generalizing methods developed for ordering phenomena in simple systems to complex forms of matter such as liquid crystals and polymers.

Not only did he define and introduce the field of soft matter to the practitioners of theoretical and experimental physics, but he also built bridges between theoretical physics and real-world, industrial problems. He expressed big ideas without masking clarity with complicated mathematical technology. An example is the coining of the word “reptation” to describe the dynamics of a string-like polymer chain in an entangled collection of many such chains. The tantalizing imagery of snake-like motion and the simplicity of his mapping it into a one-dimensional random walk were so powerful that even a novice could understand the phenomenon. Naturally, he became a rock star to a large number of theorists and experimentalists who understood his ideas and subsequently made use of them.

Writing a biography for such a giant as de Gennes, who radiated so many rich facets of life, is a daunting task. Laurence Plévert’s Pierre-Gilles de Gennes: A Life in Science does a superb job in portraying the genius with vivid details of his personal attributes and professional accomplishments. The story is mostly through de Gennes’s own words, gathered from many personal interviews conducted by the biographer. The rest of the information was synthesized from interviews with colleagues and friends who witnessed his charisma, intellect, simplicity, and kindness. The chronologically organized chapters allow the reader to see de Gennes growing into a great scientist, and follow his scientific accomplishments and his contributions to his country. De Gennes’s recollections are inspiring and reveal the inner workings of a great scientific mind passionate about future generations of scientists.

De Gennes grew up amidst French aristocracy, with a childhood punctuated by anxieties associated with wartime challenges, family separations, and poor health. His mother was essentially the sole navigator of his childhood. As de Gennes acknowledged, she was “strict in her principles,” she instilled in him the “drive to be the best,” and she taught him “not to waste time in self-indulgence.” She nurtured her child with a continuous stream of private lessons in art, literature, mathematics, and the sciences. Anecdotes of how proud she was of her son are vividly described in the book. De Gennes was a spectacular student throughout his school and college days. The author’s description of his subject’s years working toward a doctoral thesis is a testament to both de Gennes’s prowess as a young intellect and the greatness of the French educational system.

His first appointment as a professor was at the Université Paris–Sud (in Orsay) following a brief postdoctoral tenure with Charles Kittel—whose lucid style turned out to be quite influential on de Gennes’s own scientific approach—and a term of military service involving the testing of France’s first atomic bomb. His first project at Orsay was to initiate an experimental laboratory on superconductivity. In all projects he supervised, theorists and experimentalists worked together, and that first effort was no exception.

Despite several failures as an experimentalist, de Gennes preferred experiments and the secrets hidden in them to sophisticated mathematical formalisms. For the first thesis project for his doctorate he made an ingenious but failed attempt to synthesize magnesium oxide crystals. And de Gennes’s next major experimental project was his attempts to take measurements during the first 30 seconds of France’s first atomic bomb detonation in the Algerian Sahara. He recollected that he “did everything wrong, especially standing up and watching the explosion.”

Throughout his career, he surrounded himself with experimentalists who were more than eager to work with him. He was not afraid of complex industrial problems either. In taking them on, he broke down the barriers between fundamental and applied sciences. De Gennes heavily promoted younger scientists. His passion to create jobs for fresh doctorates and young research teams propelled him to oppose big science projects such as synchrotron facilities, which he thought would syphon away scarce resources. His great success in science was intertwined with a dedication to reform education and research in France; in political circles, he leveraged his Nobel status for the good of French science. However, his reform efforts faced strong opposition from a substantial representation of that science community. The book presents a balanced description of the frustrations on both sides of the debate. The story is also a revelation of the way science has been managed in modern France.

It seems that de Gennes loved the media attention he received through his telegenic appeal in many television shows. His on stage enthusiasm, clarity of explanations, and endorsement of colleagues were so fascinating that his influence over the audience was called the “de Gennes effect.” He was not afraid of making mistakes in exploring new approaches, and he was even less concerned about admitting his mistakes with statements such as “our article was a complete turkey.” In spite of his gigantic stature, he had no illusions about himself. When a member of the Nobel Committee described him as the “Isaac Newton of our time,” de Gennes called that characterization “Nordic lyricism.”

The beautiful narration of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes provides a compelling and inspirational story of how hard work, disciplined self-learning, broad knowledge of literature, open-mindedness toward apparently different subjects and industrially relevant scientific challenges, and above all, a love of nature can lead to great achievements. Any young scientist seeking a role model from the modern era will find that individual in de Gennes as illuminated in Plévert’s biography.