I was born in Belgium on 6 November 1932. I am married to Mira Nikomarow and have five children: Michèle, Anne, Georges from a first marriage with Esther Dujardin and Sarah, Hélène from a second one with Danielle Vindal.
My parents emigrated from Poland in 1924 with my brother, who was a few months old. They were from a simple family of Polish Jews. They were looking, I suppose, for a better economic life and were escaping from an anti-Semitic environment. They worked hard, set up a textile shop and managed to reach a rather decent life when in May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, less than one year after the invasion of Poland. I was seven years old and quite aware of the situation. Persecution came gradually. After two years of relatively normal life, I was compelled to wear, as all Jews who could not hide their identity, the distinctive Star of David. A few months later, the Nazis started the deportation of Jews to concentration camps where they were murdered.
My parents, my brother and I survived the war in Belgium. We were helped and hidden by people who did not even know us, people who in those times of darkness took the great risk of displaying generosity, humanity and courage.
My parents were hiding in a place unknown to me. Separated from them to increase my chances of survival, I was taken care of by Camille and Louise Jourdan, the owners of a cafe-restaurant in Lustin, a village in the Ardennes. I want to pay tribute to their memory and of that of their daughter Yvonne, whose tenderness in initiating me to music and piano was like a glimmer of hope in a world of desperation. And to the memory of priest Warnon of Annevoie, an other small village in the Ardennes, where our family, fleeing from Lustin after a denunciation, reunited and stayed to the end of the war; he presented us to the village inhabitants as Christians; he went as far as baptising me so that I could attend the Catholic College “Notre-Dame de Bellevue” in Dinant as an ordinary student; he enrolled my brother, dressed in a fake soutane, at a seminarist school as if preparing him for priesthood. And also to the memory of many others who helped us. Without these wonderful people we could not have escaped the persecution and I would not be here to tell about it.
I have always present in my mind the courage of my parents, their perspicacity in finding the right move for escape at many critical moments, and most of all their love: in confronting the barbarity of the German Nazis and their many complicities, they always put the life of their children before the preservation of their own. Their survival was tragically marred by the complete disappearance of their Polish family, murdered in Poland by the German Nazis.
After the war, we attempted and largely succeeded in resuming a normal life. I went to secondary school and, while memories of past years still haunted the nightmares of my sleep, I functioned well at school. I developed an interest in literature, music and mathematics. My teacher of mathematics, whom I deeply appreciated, recommended studies in polytechnics for its extended program in mathematics at the University. My parents also pushed me in the same direction, out of concern about my future well-being. So in 1955 I got my degree in electrical-mechanical engineering. I realised however that my interest was less in practical applications than in the understanding of the underlying theoretical structure and I decided to learn physics. As an assistant in the polytechnic department, I was able to finance new studies and got my Physics Masters Degree in 1958 and my PhD in 1959.
I had discovered a passion for research and I was thrilled when the same year, based on recommendations and a few previous publications in Condensed Matter Physics, I was offered a two-year position in the United States at Cornell University, Ithaca (NY), as Research Associate for the young Professor Robert Brout. I immediately accepted and left for Ithaca.
Our first contact was unexpectedly warm. During my stay the convergence of our vision of science and life laid the groundwork for lasting collaboration and a lifelong friendship. In Ithaca, we worked together in condensed matter physics and in the statistical theory of phase transitions, mainly on ferromagnetism and superconductivity. We realised the importance of spontaneous symmetry breaking in phase transitions and we were extremely impressed when Yoichiro Nambu showed how this notion could be transferred to elementary particle physics to explain the small pion mass on the hadron scale. This work and his beautiful analysis of superconductivity in field theoretic terms drove us later to study the fate of spontaneous symmetry breaking in the context of gauge theory.
In fall 1961, I was scheduled to return to Belgium. By that time our collaboration and our friendship had become deeply rooted. I was offered a University Professorship at Cornell but I was missing Europe very much. I decided not to accept it and to return to Belgium. Robert and his wife Martine had a similar attraction for the Old Continent; Robert got a Guggenheim fellowship and they joined me with their children in Belgium. After a few months, the social life there and our personal relationship persuaded Robert to resign from his professorship at Cornell University and to settle permanently at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels. He eventually acquired Belgian nationality and together we directed the theoretical physics group at the ULB.
In Brussels, we resumed our analysis on spontaneous symmetry breaking, both in the statistical theory of phase transition and, inspired mainly by Nambu’s work, in field theory. This is how we discovered the mass generating mechanism that may now indeed be viewed as a phase transition from a high temperature phase in the early Universe, where elementary particle were massless, to the present low temperature phase where their mass arises from a generalisation of spontaneous symmetry breaking to Yang-Mills fields, namely the BEH mechanism.
At the ULB, Brout and I initiated a research group in fundamental interactions, that is, in the search for the general laws of nature. Joined by brilliant students, many of them becoming world renowned physicists, our group contributed to the many fields at the frontier of the challenges facing contemporary physics. While the mechanism discovered in 1964 was developed all over the world to encode the nature of weak interactions in a “Standard Model,” our group contributed to the understanding of strong interactions and quark confinement, general relativity and cosmology. There we introduced the idea of a primordial exponential expansion of the universe, later called inflation, which we related to the origin of the universe itself, a scenario, which I still think may possibly be conceptually the correct one. During these developments, our group extended our contacts with other Belgian universities and got involved in many international collaborations.
With our group and many other collaborators I analysed fractal structures, supergravity, string theory, infinite Kac-Moody algebras and more generally all tentative approaches to what I consider as the most important problem in fundamental interactions: the solution to the conflict between the classical Einsteinian theory of gravitation, namely general relativity, and the framework of our present understanding of the world, quantum theory. Although this conflict appears experimentally to affect known results only at very tiny scales of the order of 10–33cm, transcending it would amount to overcoming a conceptual mistake. As such, a solution of this conflict might affect our understanding of the laws of nature at all scales and is crucial for attempting to reach a rational understanding of the origin of the Universe.
Robert was less interested in these new developments and concentrated more on cosmology. Our collaboration became less frequent but our friendship was unaffected. He passed away on May 3, 2011 after a prolonged illness and missed the remarkable discovery of the Standard Model scalar boson at CERN and the awarding of the Nobel Prize.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.