One of the joys of Christmas is having the time to reduce the number of unread books on one’s mental ‘to do’ list by a handful, although this is a good intention sometimes challenged by the gain of a few more wonderful books as presents. These holidays represent, finally, a few days when the email deluge lessens and the guilt over failing to read the paper one has promised to referee by a month ago/the paper from a collaborator/ voluminous committee papers (hurrah! no committees for a week or two) and all those other documents you’d prefer to ignore is weakened because – you hope – no one will be reading their emails to see if you’ve done the task.
I’m afraid my personal reading style may not be approved of by all: given the chance I will read several books in parallel so that I can always pick up the one that suits my mood. I can even choose my medium, if I feel so inclined, as I switch between paper and Kindle. My diet may consist of a post-prandial lightweight volume to be read in tandem with a meatier one designed to stretch my mental powers when feeling alert and enthusiastic, both lightly seasoned with a biography or two plus a Victorian classic to give me that comfort/feel-good factor reminding me how glad I am to be alive a century-and-a-half later and not subject to diphtheria, the work-house or deprived of the vote and ability to earn an income.
Amongst my reading fare this Christmas I have, for the first time I suspect, read a biography of someone I’ve not only met but had the opportunity to interact with over a number of years, even to know a bit. If it wasn’t for the fact I didn’t believe in heroic science I could even identify this biographee as a hero, an identity the style of writing tends to reinforce. The book is the life-story of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (about whom I have written a little before), Nobel Prize winner in 1991 and a founder – if not the founder – of the field of soft matter in which I work. This book (Pierre-Gilles de Gennes: a Life in Science) was written by a French journalist, Laurence Plévert, based on many conversations with de Gennes in the couple of years preceding his death in 2007, as well as with many of his friends and colleagues.
The author has identified some deep-lying themes, but somehow they never quite lead to a biography greater than the sum of its parts.
so I expected to find it a rather dry account of his life. In fact, on the contrary, I found it illuminating the man I had known, drawing out strands of which I had perhaps been only subliminally aware and it provoked quite a lot of reflection on quite why he had so much impact on so many individuals, myself included.
What follows is not a book review – there are several out there including Tom’s – but a personal consideration of this impact,factoring in the fact I have openly disavowed the heroic ideal of a scientist. It is worth noting that de Gennes background was of French aristocracy coupled with a half-English mother who was a strong Protestant with high academic expectations (or more accurately, demands) of her son. His teenage years had the fairly foul backdrop of occupied France, but nothing seems to have dimmed his love of learning. His breadth of interests was substantial and, although ultimately a theoretical physicist, he had carried out sufficient experimental work to have a full appreciation of experimentalists and always worked closely with them.
What I had really not appreciated until I read the book, was how deep-rooted his feelings about interdisciplinarity were, the importance of physicists working not only with chemists but also biologists. He himself very deliberately set out to study a substantial amount of biology during the 2 years of intense study which (still) comprise the ‘classes préparatoires’, the pre-requisite for entering one of the Grandes Écoles in Paris, before he was admitted to ENS (École National Supérieure). Downstream, one consequence of this was that he was also responsible for driving through the requirement for all students to study the three experimental sciences at ESPCI when he became its Director in 1976 (I discussed this breadth of education here). However, it meant he was very familiar with the challenges of interdisciplinary working and funding – something I have highlighted here and here on my own blog in the context of the current UK climate – but he was describing a much earlier era. For instance writing to the director of biology at the CNRS in 1978 he said:
The Orsay [submolecular biophysics} team currently depends on Committee 19 (macromolecular physical chemistry, but is somewhat marginal to the interests of that committee….This is a shocking situation, which illustrates how hard it is for biophysics to survive, with the lack of recognition within CNRS.
These are sentiments that many of my colleagues would appreciate are still applicable in many funding situations.
I was very aware that de Gennes was personally extremely encouraging about the work I did on starch during the 1990s. Visiting him in Paris at a time when some of my colleagues at the Cavendish were still being decidedly sniffy about the work I did on food physics, he and his long-standing (if part-time) partner and collaborator Françoise Brochard (he had two very public families, one with his wife Annie and one with Françoise) took me out to lunch. He tried to reassure me that I was doing important work by trying to get to grips with the interplay between starch granule structure and the biochemical pathways by which it was laid down, which could be looked at by studying different mutants. His encouragement, his seal of approval for moving away from conventional physics, meant a lot to me, but at the time I did not realise with quite what personal commitment he spoke, as opposed to simply being encouraging to a promising junior.
His own research path was indubitably as unconventional as his personal life. Having started off by making a name for himself in the field of superconductors (on which he wrote his first book), he reached a point where he felt he had done all he, as a theorist, could at the time and consciously switched fields to liquid crystals in the late 1960s, after a brief but largely unsuccessful foray into the field of polymers. His group at Orsay substantially switched with him (famously they tended to publish as ‘the Orsay liquid crystal group’ rather than under individual names, an idea pushed by de Gennes although it wasn’t always helpful for the career development of members of his team). Much of the mechanistic understanding of how liquid crystal displays work arises from this work, summed up in the book he published on the topic in 1974. When I started working on liquid crystalline polymers in 1983 this was one of my bibles, although much of the analysis was hard to carry over to the longer chain versions of such molecules.
But, not content with making an abrupt change in research direction once, he did it again when he switched to working on polymers a second time. This time he stopped trying to work on the problems with the normal exactitude that French tradition expects and developed the approaches now known as scaling laws (encapsulated in his third book ‘Scaling Concepts in Polymer Physics’, published in 1979), which allowed him to relate physical properties, such as diffusion coefficients, to the length of polymer chains without having regard to what happens to each individual monomer, let alone each atom. He likened his approaches to Impressionist art, in that he was seeking a broad-brush approach, something that would probably be termed coarse-grained in the modern parlance.
The book was written when he was at Cornell University as Professor-at-large. This was a time when I too was at Cornell, albeit I was in an Engineering Department not Physics and hadn’t yet started working on polymers. But, I did hear him speak there in about 1980 – by which time I was just getting to grips with polymer physics – and my over-riding impression was ‘what a hideous man’, a strange reaction, but I suspect his science went over my head at the time. When back at the Cavendish after 1983, I read this book many times, trying to get to grips with the subtleties of what are often rather heuristic arguments. I did not find the way he thought easy to follow, and I was always defeated – as an experimentalist – when I wanted to know not just the scaling, but what the prefactors ought to be. But, struggle though I might, I could nevertheless appreciate the elegance and power of what he did.
The biography spells out just how much he disliked the rigorous French tradition of theoretical physics, with its narrow concentration on mechanistically solving problems rather than actually thinking about how to approach and solve them. But equally he disliked the French system of patronage and the emphasis placed (and, I suspect sometimes is still placed) on where someone’s first degree/PhD comes from. In 2004 he wrote
The universities are run by a council on which the biggest labs are the best represented. Their objective is self-perpetuation rather than scientific renewal, so, for example, they recruit their own students, students who did their PhD’s through the laboratory rather than outside candidates. The result is you get the same research topics over and over again, however obsolete. This system is killing university research.
[Aside: Some might feel that applies to the UK’s Golden Triangle too, but I believe they would be wrong now, although it may have been accurate in the past. In my experience over the past decade or so, my own department has rarely hired an internal candidate, with many of our recent posts going to individuals from various European countries. ]
After the award of the 1991 Nobel Prize massively increased his public visibility, de Gennes became more ‘political’, engaging with ministers in an attempt to change those parts of the system he most disliked and to get the best deal for science. He was not afraid to be outspoken. Although he far from always got his way, he was certainly listened to, not to mention lauded. Which takes me onto my final theme of ‘heroes’.
As I have said before, I do not think it is helpful to consider science as a heroic endeavour done by lone individuals. De Gennes most certainly always surrounded himself by a team, particularly of experimentalists who he hoped would prove (or disprove) his latest theory. He worked best by bouncing ideas off others, talking problems through and being stimulated by conversations during chance encounters to provoke him to delve into yet another rich seam of problems. However, I don’t think it is inconsistent to think of individuals acting as personal heroes, if that is the word you prefer to use instead of mentor, role-model or inspiration. I have previously stated that for me de Gennes – along with his Cambridge friend and my senior colleague Sir Sam Edwards – was very much a role model and mentor for me personally, although I would be slightly chary to describe him as my hero.
I know I owe him many a debt of gratitude. He was always enthusiastic and encouraging to me when he passed through Cambridge, as he did quite regularly and, as I mentioned above, invited me to talk at the College de France where he worked. Beyond that, rumour has it that the year I applied for promotion to Professor (in 1998) the Faculty Board made what sounds like an extraordinary decision: that all candidates had to have a reference written by a Nobel Prize winner, something I have never heard of happening in any other year and certainly not something that would (or could) happen now. I wasn’t told of this until after I knew I had indeed been promoted (this was a time when there were still only a handful of promotions made across the entire university each year in Cambridge), and I was duly grateful that in my own case there was a Nobel Prize winner who would have known me sufficiently well to write a meaningful letter. I also knew that this was purely fortuitous. Others would have fared much worse; it was simply something of a lottery and I was fortunate.
This meant that by the time I had sufficient seniority to be of some use to him, I felt something of an obligation to agree to his requests. Three times he asked me to take on a job for him: the first was when he was in the process of setting up a new journal in soft matter (EPJE, launched in 2000) and he rang me up out of the blue and asked me to be one of the first editor-in-chiefs. Having always kept away from serious editorial responsibilities, I nevertheless didn’t feel I could say no, although I did stick to my inviolate resolution of not agreeing to anything major on the phone. I spent at least a weekend considering my decision. Secondly, within a very short space of time in 2002 he asked me to be on the panel that selected his successor as ESPCI’s Director and to serve on the jury for the first L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science panel in materials science (the 2003 round of laureates). Again I said yes to both these invitations, resulting in some extremely pleasant trips to Paris. I felt it was the least I could do for this amazing man.
As a biography I would strongly recommend this book, even if soft matter is not your discipline and you know little about the field – or indeed French academic life. The book makes a good job of making de Gennes’ science intelligible to the non-expert and puts the French system into context. Tom McLeish’s book review was entitled ‘Soft Matter’s charismatic pioneer’. Whether that was Tom’s heading or a sub-editor’s, I think it accurately describes de Gennes. He was charismatic, because he was full of energy, charm and enthusiasm. When talking to you in his fluent English, you felt that he was simply focussing all his attention on you, on what you were saying in the moment, even if other matters of great importance must also have been lurking in his mind. I was undoubtedly charmed and warmed by him. Not a hero, but certainly a charismatic inspiration. I feel the book made him come to life for me, reminding me of many of his obvious attributes and fleshing out those parts of his character of which I had little inkling.