Sunday, October 17, 2010

In memoriam: Georges Charpak and Maurice Allais

Time goes by and people die. And so do great scientists. There is Benoit Mandelbrot (November 20, 1924 – October 14, 2010) who developed the study of fractals, because he "decided to go into fields where mathematicians would never go because problems were badly stated". Two others, less known in the English speaking world and who are an example to me have also left us recently. I name: Georges Charpak and Maurice Allais.

Georges Charpak (March 8, 1924 – September 29, 2010) was born in the little town Dubrovytsia located in a region where the political and social situation was very complicated at that time. The region was essentially populated with Ukrainian and Yiddish speaking people. It had suffered the post-WW1 Polish-Russian war and belonged to Poland at the time of his birth. Charpak's family had the opportunity to flee to France, which saved him from later WW2 exterminations of Jews in his natal country. In France, the situation was much better, Georges calling it even "paradise". During the 1920-30s, there was a tolerant spirit in France, allowing him to make friends with people of all origin. The Nazi occupation of France during WW2 brought new dangers for him. He had to change his name to George Charpentier, entered the French Resistance, he was imprisoned, participated to mutiny in the prison, escaped the punishment fusillade for the mutineers (he heard the ball flying around his ears). He was deported to the concentration camp of Dachau and was saved from extermination again because the Nazis could use his young guy's force in Dachau instead of sending him to more severe camps. His career as an experimental physicist started after the war with a thesis on particle detectors in Frédéric Joliot-Curie's group. He excelled in building simple detectors. His wire-detectors slightly replaced the historical bubble and ionization-chambers. He further worked at CERN and one of his detectors, the multi wire proportional chamber ("not the most elegant" in his words), earned him the Nobel in 1992. He also lectured at the ESPCI, where I'm currently PhD student. Apart from this exceptional course, after his Nobel, he had the nobility of mind to start a hands-on program for elementary school students "La Main à la Pâte" (literally Hand in the dough). I am fond of such initiatives because it brings experimental physics nearer to us. It is always preferable to first discover by ourselves how Nature works before learning how to formulate its laws through math. Too often, we learn the formula of a physical law before having experimented it personally.
"If there's one thing to do, it's to engage in education." ~ Georges Charpak.

Maurice Allais (May 31, 1911 – October 9, 2010) was born earlier, before WW1. His father died in a German prison during WW1. Early loss of his father left a profound mark on the rest of his life. He devoted his life to the comprehension of all things he encountered. His passions were history, science, economics, physics. He excelled in all disciplines during his education. He had the opportunity to visit the United States in 1933 and was so impressed by the Great Depression and the inability to solve the crisis, that he studied by himself the principles that would secure economic wealth. The life-long product of this work earned him the Nobel Economics in 1988. I'm not a specialist in Economics, but as far as I understand, one of his findings (before other economists) is the Golden rule of savings rate, which states that the rate of interest a banker applies should be equal to the rate of economic growth: an equilibrium law applied to economics. At the beginning of his professional career, Maurice Allais taught economics at the Ecole des Mines. I suppose Georges Charpak, student at that same school, must have followed some of his lectures (*footnote). While Georges Charpak engaged in "normal" physics, Maurice Allais pondered over the foundations of physics. He wasn't satisfied about the interpretation of relativity and quantum theories. As a physicist, he needed to find it out for himself. In the 19th century tradition, against mainstream, he began to conduct experiments on a pendulum of his invention in order to investigate periodical fluctuations in gravity and electromagnetism and their influence by planetary motion. The interesting thing is that he found unexplained effects, among which the most famous is the "Allais effect", a deviation of the oscillatory plane of the pendulum during solar eclipses. Maurice Allais published some books in French where he details the results of his investigations. These effects remain unexplained today, likewise the Pioneer anomaly. I have no settled idea about these effects. I think that such effects suffer from capricious cosmological (photon, graviton, muon or whatever other particles) weather. One can find some seasonal regularities though. Further investigation is left to us, curious experimenters, satisfied only by what Nature teaches us.

*Update November 20, 2010: This was confirmed to me by close relatives to Maurice Allais and Georges Charpak.

Credit of the portraits of both Nobel Prize winners by Studio Harcourt Paris.

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