Georges Charpak


Interview, December 2001

Interview with Professor Georges Charpak by Joanna Rose, science writer, 6 December 2001.

Professor Charpak talks about his work and the Nobel Prize, his childhood in Ukraine (1:26), his time at the Juliot-Curie laboratory (5:12), and the tolerance he found when coming to France in 1931 (7:58).

Interview transcript

Transcript from an interview with Professor Georges Charpak, 1992 Nobel Laureate in Physics, on 6 December 2001. Interviewer is Joanna Rose, science writer.

Professor Georges Charpak, welcome to Stockholm and to this Nobel interview. You are one of the very few French scientists who have been awarded a Nobel Prize. Why is that so?

Georges Charpak: I know a lot of very good scientists in France and I don’t know the rules of the games, since it was a good surprise to have the Nobel Prize. And it so happened because what I did was important for the activity of other physicists who had had the Nobel Prize using the instruments they had made, but I don’t feel it is the most important thing I have done.

What is the most important thing you have done?

Georges Charpak: I’ve worked on many detectors, some were very elegant and useless, and didn’t have a Nobel Prize, so this one was not the most elegant, but it was useful.

You have also written a biography, My Name is Grisha. Where does this name come from?

Georges Charpak: I am born in Ukraine, it is now Ukraine, it was on the border. So I had a very agitated life at the beginning of my life, because I was born in a place where there had been ten years of ethnic fights and revolutionary fights.

Between Ukrainians and Poles and …?

Georges Charpak: Between the Bolsheviks, the anarchists, the Poles, and peace came in 1922 when the Bolsheviks were beaten by the Poles and the border was just on the other side.

So everybody was marching through …

Quote… I had the same education as somebody who was rich …

Georges Charpak: And so I was on the western side, and it is fortunate, because it was a very undeveloped country and I would not have survived, maybe, with the ethnic conflicts, because I was of Jewish origin, and I came to France at the age of seven and I found a country which for me was a paradise. Because I could then go to school, we were poor, but I had the same education as somebody who was rich. I never found any obstacle entering into a school when I was in Paris.

So how come you got interested in science?

Georges Charpak: I was not interested in science. I was interested in everything. I was reading Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas, even Lenin, I wanted to change the world. I was interested in the world. And France was a place where you have a kind of intellectual evolution between the two halves. You had the fascism coming up, the anti-fascists fighting …

When was it, do you mean? In the fifties?

Georges Charpak: I came in 1931, so between 31 and 40. When the Germans arrived, my adolescence was embedded into an atmosphere of very hard discussion, so …

So you could become a politician.

Georges Charpak: No, I could become a dictator.

A dictator …

Georges Charpak: At that time …

So it’s better with another prize winner.

Georges Charpak: At that time, at this age, you don’t do politics, you do revolutions. And I participated through the war, I was lucky enough to survive, and I started to do science after the war.

Where were you during the war?

Georges Charpak: I spent one year in jail, in the south of France, and one year in Dachau, which is a concentration camp …

A camp.

Georges Charpak: And that didn’t help my education in physics. Because I was working on a field, a landing field, and I was working hard moving earth. But I survived. I was lean, and I’m trying this year to try to reach the same line, but it’s hopeless. But then I started to do science really at the age of 24. By that time, I had an engineering degree, and I entered the laboratory of Joliot-Curie and it was a blessing because there were good scientific traditions there.

And a good tradition of Nobel Prizes.

QuoteThat is very important – history of science …

Georges Charpak: Well, in the sense that the people who had the Nobel Prize were leaving the laboratory, although they were very busy, they were speaking of all their inventions they had made and not made. That is very important – history of science. That played a very important role for me.

Before I knew well how to do an experiment, I knew why Joliot was missing the neutron. Why, yes, miss, why his wife missed the fission, but why they succeeded in having artificial radioactivity. And even why they almost missed other things by doing very nice experiments but didn’t come to a conclusion. That is science. Science is doubt, is research. It is not something which is … that is the danger of teaching which is too academic, and which people explain to you, it is like the logic thing coming out from a computer, which is not true.

It’s not the success story, you mean.

Georges Charpak: Yes. You have intuition, you have passion, so I consider that was a very important period of my life. And I was 24 and I learned then to make instruments. Why? Because I had … in the laboratory we didn’t have instruments, we had to build them by ourselves. And I learned physics that way. Though why I have a special connection to physics through the channel of detectors, because I had to detect particles, I was in a nuclear physics laboratory. What do you do in a nuclear physics laboratory? You detect particles. So I imagined detectors, and my imagination had been what made me in my childhood when I was travelling, because after all, when I was two, I went to Palestine and Haifa, and I came back two years later. When I say I came back, my parents came back …

… brought you.

QuoteI came to France, and when I came to France it was a paradise …

Georges Charpak: … brought me there, because they were breaking stone on roads, and in 1931 we came to France because the French were making an exhibition on colonial, on the colonies. So my parents obtained a visa as tourists. They were so poor, but they had a visa to come to Paris, and they had a relative who was living in Paris, and we all arrived there and we stayed there. So we were not kind of immigrants, we say, we go to France, we go to the consulate in Warszaw and we get a decent visa. That is not the case. I came to France, and when I came to France it was a paradise. I discovered in France one thing which was essential – tolerance. And that was the richess of France.

You could find people who were intolerant, who were fascists, but they were not the majority. And there were enough of the people who were tolerant and had curiosity towards people who were foreigners. And I found, in no time I had French friends. So it was that in one year I was speaking French, and it was French in my house. And that is something that should be underlined, there are not so many countries where a foreigner can come and in no time to even to live with other foreigners unless he needs some help. I mean, especially for the children. I think the children have a greater sense of hospitality than their parents. They are more ready to play with you if you are the same age than the parents, who I think made me fall in love, do you want to marry my daughter, I mean, we’d better separate.

So you have to start early.

Georges Charpak: You have to start early. This is why I am very glad that the efforts in education in which I am involved started at the age of five, and I can see, we start in suburbs and places where you have ten nationalities, and the children have no problem interfering with each other. And play with each other and being in class with each other doing science. We call that hands-on, it is the /- – -/ part, it is a brand of science where experimentation in groups plays a very important role. And I can see that benefit effect of this approach through teaching, and through social integration.

Yeah. So I understand that it’s very important to get started early, and there is much work to be done. So, good luck, Professor Charpak, and thank you.

Georges Charpak: Thank you.

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