Symposium to Honor Life of Nobel-Winning Physicist

Issue Date: 
October 15, 2007

After winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1991, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes spent two years touring high schools in his native France speaking about science and the benefits of thinking.

The late physicist’s commitment to making science publicly accessible served as inspiration for the Pierre-Gilles de Gennes Memorial Symposium hosted by the physics and astronomy department of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Arts and Sciences. It will be held from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Friday in 343 Alumni Hall.

De Gennes, who died in May, earned the Nobel Prize for exploring the behavior and formation of complex materials as they transition from order to disorder and applying his findings to explain the behavior of a wide range of the basic matter in nature and technology. His work focused on liquid crystals and polymers, which are long chains of molecules.

Specifically, de Gennes advanced our understanding of polymer movement, enabling better control of polymers such as plastic, rubber, and even DNA. He also disclosed how liquid crystals transform from a transparent to an opaque state, the principle enabling the use of liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) common in computer screens and flat-screen televisions.

On a larger scale, de Gennes showed that equations pertaining to one form of matter could be applied to another even if the physical properties were completely different. “His theory had an extremely broad impact,” said Steven Dytman, Pitt physics professor, who co-organized the symposium with Pitt Emeritus Professor of Physics Walter Goldburg. “He made the idea of ‘what-the-heck’s-going-on-in-there’ understandable so that an important piece of today’s technology could be developed. He was a remarkable guy, and we’re trying to honor his spirit with a conference of general interest.”

To honor his life and work, Dytman and Goldburg invited de Gennes’ colleagues to discuss his lasting influence on science. Among those scheduled to speak at the symposium is the mother of de Gennes’ children, physicist Francoise Brochard-Wyart of the Laboratoire de Physico Chemie Curie in Paris, who will show a video of de Gennes.

The symposium schedule follows.

1 p.m.—Introduction

1:10 p.m.—Francoise Brochard-Wyart of Laboratoire de Physico Chemie Curie will present “Reflections on Pierre-Gilles de Gennes.”

2:10 p.m.—Tom Lubensky of the University of Pennsylvania will discuss de Gennes’ work with liquid crystal.

3:10 p.m.—Refreshments

3:30 p.m.—Fyl Pincus of the University of California at Santa Barbara will deliver a presentation titled “The Role of de Gennes in the Polymer Revolution.”

4 p.m.—Yadin Goldschmidt of Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy will present “A Taste of de Gennes’ Contributions to Superconductivity and Polymer Physics.”

4:30 p.m.—Pitt Physics Professor David Jasnow will discuss coming of age and working in the de Gennes era.

5:30 p.m.—Reception