Symposium commemorates physics Nobel laureate

A leading researcher in the field of soft-matter physics and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes was honored by colleagues and friends at University of Pittsburgh’s Memorial Symposium two weeks ago.

Professor Steven Dytman and emeritus professor Walter Goldburg organized the symposium to highlight de Gennes’s contributions to science in terms of his research in polymer physics, superconductivity, and liquid crystals.

Among the guest speakers at the symposium were Françoise Brochard-Wyart of Laboratoire de Physico-Chimie Curie in France, Tom Lubensky of the University of Pennsylvania, Fyl Pincus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Yadin Goldschmidt of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh.

The symposium began with Goldburg briefly describing de Gennes’s work in the field of soft-matter physics. Soft-matter physics focuses on the properties of different materials that are neither fluid nor solid, such as rubber, polymer, and lubricants.

Goldburg said that “de Gennes had a strong, artistic feeling about his work, not to forget his remarkable intuition to get to the heart of the physics.”

“The notion of phase transition,” such as the steps involved in the physicochemical mutation from ice to water, “played an important role in de Gennes’s work,” he said.

Brochard-Wyart, who had been a collaborator of de Gennes for more than 30 years, provided her audience with insight into de Gennes’s academic and professional interests by presenting a film about his life and accomplishments.

The film Reflections on Pierre-Gilles de Gennes depicted de Gennes’s work at various stages of his life, from being a college student through teaching and researching.

The film also encapsulated various books that he authored and touched on de Gennes’s frequent visits to Japan out of his love for Japan’s scientific culture.

During his lifetime, de Gennes geared his research mainly toward the study of liquid crystals. Liquid crystals are substances that have particular arrangements of molecules. These substances are used to make liquid crystal displays (LCDs) in laptops.

In the late 1960s, de Gennes advanced his research by establishing the Orsay Liquid Crystal Group, an organization dedicated to the study of liquid crystals.

In the early 1970s, de Gennes extensively researched the physics of liquid crystal polymers and published The Physics of Liquid Crystals with Jacques Prost.

Prior to de Gennes’s research, scientists knew that liquid crystals exhibited different phases depending on the surrounding temperature.

De Gennes drew attention to the fact that the liquid crystals not only have amplitude and phases, but also a director based on the order of the molecules, which indicates the direction faced by liquid crystals.

As stated in a University of Pittsburgh press release, de Gennes also unveiled in his research 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.”

Throughout his career, de Gennes’s interest in the physical world was fueled by the real observation of scientific processes in daily life, rather than extensive theoretical formulations,said Pincus.

Lubensky said that de Gennes’s ability to “take concepts from one methodology and apply them to fields where no one would expect them to work,” was highly commendable and one of the secrets behind his success.

While de Gennes focused mainly on liquid crystal physics in his research, “he had an impact over almost everything, from magnets to superconductors,” Lubensky said.