Number 52 (Story #1), October 16, 1991 by Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein|
THE 1991 PHYSICS NOBEL PRIZE goes to Pierre-Gilles de Gennes of the College de France in Paris "for discovering that methods developed for studying order phenomena in simple systems can be generalized to more complex forms of matter, in particular to liquid crystals and polymers." Specifically, de Gennes's accomplishments include the following: (1) He was instrumental in putting polymer physics on a more mathematical footing. For example, he derived dimensionless parameters incorporating certain polymer properties---such as polymer length, molecular weight, and radius of gyration---which obey "scaling laws"; that is, the parameters characterize the polymer conformation and behavior over a wide range of experimental conditions, such as temperature or polymer concentration. (De Gennes's book, "Scaling Concepts in Polymer Physics," was published in 1979.) (2) He formulated a theory which describes "reptation," the movement (through the surrounding medium) of polymers along the direction of their longitudinal axis. (3) He has been a pioneer in the study of polymers at interfaces, a subject with practical applications in a variety of areas, such as turbulence suppression, lubrication, oil recovery, immunology, and waste treatment. (4) He and his team of colleagues at Orsay University studied the anomalous scattering of light from liquid crystals. (De Gennes's book, "The Physics of Liquid Crystals," was published in 1974.) According to the Royal Swedish Academy, which awards the physics Nobel Prize, de Gennes "demonstrated important similarities between the behavior of liquid crystals and that of superconductors."