Laurence Plévert
World Scientific Publishing
2011 | 372pp | £32 (PB)
ISBN 9789814355254

Many great scientists must overcome handicaps, prejudice and rejection before realising their passion. Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (1932–2007) was the only child of affluent aristocratic parents. He saw little of his indulgent father, but his ambitious mother Yvonne was convinced of his brilliance and ensured a hard-working education.

He began to embrace science at age 14 and entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris, in 1951. Physicist Yves Rocard taught him interdisciplinarity and the practicality of science, while two months at the new school of theoretical physics at Les Houches prompted a shift from spectroscopy to semiconductors under Pierre Aigrain.

His Nobel prize in 1991 was for theoretical physics but he also collaborated with experimentalists. He made advances in physical chemistry including chirality, liquid crystals, phase transitions and soft matter. He held multiple research appointments, including the College de France, Paris and the Saclay Nuclear Research Centre.

Having resisted biographers, in 2005 de Gennes agreed to 20 carefully prepared interviews with science journalist Laurence Plévert. Many colleagues and relatives were interviewed to construct an effective chronological account of his scientific life.

The final chapter includes a perceptive reflection on the relevance of de Gennes’ excursions into diverse fields to a contemporary researcher, publishing for recognition and following funding fashions. De Gennes was outspoken against mediocre science, whether in universities, spurious environmental fashions, or the funding of large science projects. Over 2003–04 at Institut Curie he learnt about the brain and olefactory memory, publishing up to 2007.

Plévert fulfils his subtitle well. I recommend to chemists an enjoyable story of a charismatic genius.