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Physics Nobelist linked materials with math.

While most physicists prefer to study simple systems, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics proved that even "untidy" schemes can elucidate basic principles.

The $1 million prize goes to 59-year-old French physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, of the University of Paris, for discovering broad mathematical methods to describe phenomena of order and chaos in such widely differing materials as liquid crystals, superconductors and polymers. In announcing the decision last week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called de Gennes "the Isaac Newton of our time."

"Some of the systems de Gennes has treated have been so complicated that few physicists had earlier thought it possible to incorporate them at all in a general physical description," the Academy observed.

Phase transitions -- in which atoms or molecules in a material shift between ordered and disordered states -- have long piqued de Gennes' interest. In the 1950s, he began studying how tiny atomic magnets alter their alignment with changes in temperature. In the 1960s, he worked with liquid crystals -- which display characteristics of both solid and liquid phases -- to test general physical theories. Those studies enabled him to explain how fluctuating molecular order in liquid crystals affects the scattering of light. De Gennes also mathematically demonstrated similarities between liquid crystals and superconductors.

In the 1970s, his curiosity extended to polymers. Seeking a way to describe how these long-chained molecules form a spaghetti-like tangle in a dilute solution, de Gennes discovered a mathematical way to link their complicated arrangements with general physical principles of phase transitions.
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Title Annotation:Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Physics
Author:Schmidt, Karen
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 26, 1991
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