Nobel Laureate in Physics To Deliver Silliman Lectures at Yale

A French physicist who has been hailed as the “Isaac Newton of our time” for his ability to reduce a broad range of complex phenomena to a few simple truths will deliver the first Silliman Lectures of the 1998-99 academic year at Yale University.

Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1991 for his discovery of rules describing how some materials shift from one state of being to another, will speak on the theme “Granular Materials: From Rice to Snow” during his visit to campus Wednesday-Friday, Sept. 23-25. He will present three lectures: “Granular Materials: An Overview of the Battlefield between Mechanics and Physics” on Wednesday; “Avalanches: A Tragedy in Three Acts” on Thursday; and “The Physics of Sand Dunes and the Problem of Desertification” on Friday.

All three talks will be held at 4 p.m. in Davies Auditorium, Becton Center, 15 Prospect St. Each will be preceded by a tea at 3:30 p.m. in the Becton faculty lounge. Both the talks and teas are open to the public free of charge.

De Gennes has been a professor since 1971 at the College de France and director since 1976 of the Ecole de Physique et Chimie, both in Paris. He is considered the world’s foremost authority on soft matter, and has been credited with putting France’s research at the forefront of scientific inquiry in this area.

He is an expert in statistical physics of the field of condensed matter, which deals with the behavior of materials that condense into solid, gas or liquid phases. Like 17th-century scientist Isaac Newton, who discovered a set of basic laws explaining the complicated motions of the planets, de Gennes has identified general rules governing how these materials behave during their transition from one phase to another.

For instance, the liquid crystals used in digital watches and laptop computer screens undergo a number of phase changes – such as changing from transparent to opaque – while performing their functions, and there are up to 1,000 different materials that exhibit liquid crystal behavior. By studying the behavior of these materials, de Gennes found they could be classified into five or seven different phases.

In addition, de Gennes has also pointed out analogies between the behavior of liquid crystals and superconductors, materials that conduct electricity with extremely high efficiency, and he discovered similar rules to explain some fundamental puzzles in the behavior of polymers. The latter are materials made up of long chains of molecules and include both natural substances like wool and cotton, and synthetics like nylon, polyester, plastics and plexiglass. It was for this work on “order and disorder in nature” that de Gennes was awarded the Nobel Prize.

More recently, de Gennes has been studying adhesives and glues, and was recently cited as saying that “eventually one could make airplanes that are glued, not riveted.”

Educated at Ecole Normale Superieure and the University of California at Berkeley, de Gennes worked for France’s Atomic Energy Center in Saclay 1955-58, where he studied how magnets react to changes in temperature. He also served in the French Navy 1959-61 and was a professor at the University of Orsay 1961-71.

The author of six books, de Gennes has lectured throughout the world and has received prizes from scientific organizations around the world. He is a member of the French Academy of Sciences and its counterparts in the United States, Australia, Brazil and Ukraine; the Royal Society in the United Kingdom; and the American and Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Established in 1901, the Silliman Memorial Lectures series is the oldest at Yale. It was established by a bequest from Augustus Ely Silliman of Brooklyn, N.Y., in honor of his mother, Hepsa Ely Silliman. The series brings to campus outstanding researchers in the natural sciences.

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