Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, 74; won Nobel Prize in physics for liquid crystal work

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who was dubbed the “Isaac Newton of our time” for his pioneering research on liquid crystals, has died. He was 74.

He died Friday in Orsay, a suburb of Paris, the French newspaper Le Monde reported Tuesday.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed De Gennes’ “immense talent,” calling him “an exceptional physicist and one of our greatest scientists.”

De Gennes was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1991 for his breakthrough work on liquid crystals.

The substance, which has the properties of a liquid and a solid, is used in such products as flat-screen TVs, computer screens, wristwatches, calculators, thermometers and voltage indicators on battery packages.

On awarding the prize, the jury called De Gennes the “Isaac Newton of our time.” He was recognized for his ability to meld chemistry and physics using mathematics to find order in simple systems and then generalize the findings to apply to more complex forms of matter.

De Gennes rejected the comparison with the English scientist, chalking the description up to the “Nordic lyricism” of the Stockholm-based award’s jury, French media reported.

De Gennes also won the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics in 1990 for his contributions to the understanding of complex systems and was a member of France’s Academy of Science.

Born in Paris in 1932, De Gennes was home-schooled by his parents, a doctor and a nurse, and later attended Paris’ elite Ecole Normale Superieure university.

After graduating, he began research on atomic energy, magnetism and superconductivity.

He studied with solid-state physicist Charles Kittel at UC Berkeley in 1959 and then served in the French navy before becoming a professor of physics at the University of Paris in Orsay in 1961.

While other laboratories were paralyzed by the student riots that shook France in 1968, De Gennes brought together several teams of researchers to work on liquid crystals, Le Monde said.

Starting in 1971 he studied polymers — chainlike molecules of plastic, nylon, polyester and plexiglass substances — and could describe how polymers move and evolve.

In recent years, according to the “World of Scientific Discovery,” De Gennes studied the science of how two objects meet, such as the wetting of surfaces by liquids, how materials stick to each other and the physical chemistry of adhesion.

De Gennes is survived by his wife, Anne-Marie Rouet, whom he married in 1954, and three children.