Friday, March 26, 2004

Department of Impressive Scientists - 1. Pierre-Gilles de Gennes 

In the course of trying to teach myself scaling theory to understand the physics of polymer brushes (roughly theory that semi-quantitatively captures how polymer macroscopic properties change with changes in solution and/or microscopic polymer properties) I've started working my way through a small fraction of the large output of the French Noble Prize winner Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. Clearly you shouldn't have to give a Noble Prize winner public acclaim (I mean in that sense what can I give that the guy doesn't have already) but I'm going to do so anyways.

Often I read articles like this one from the Boston Globe (which called de Gennes "the Isaac Newton of our time") and I think ehhh. I mean no one would suggest that Nobleists are full of it exactly, but there's a fair amount of distance between doing even really great, pheonomenally important science and Newton. The line I'm trying to draw here is this: Newton's work was remarkable both for its intellectual import but also, and perhaps more remarkably, for its almost self-evidently right quality. Reading Newton you get the sense that not only is this obviously how the world works, I would never have seen it. de Gennes has exactly this kind of talent. A talent for simplifying and universalizing: for seeing how all science really is (to paraphrase Kelvin) either physics or accounting. His is the sort of talent that all scientists think they have when they start out. Wow.
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