Charpak, Georges 1924-

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CHARPAK, Georges 1924-

PERSONAL: Born August 1, 1924, in Dabrovica, Poland; immigrated to France, 1929; naturalized French citizen, 1946; son of Maurice and Anna (Szapiro) Charpak; married Dominique Vidal, 1953; children: Yves, Nathalie, Serge. Education: École des Mines de Paris, B.S., 1948; College of France, Ph.D., 1954. Hobbies and other interests: Skiing, music, hiking.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Johns Hopkins University, 2715 North Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.

CAREER: Physicist. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France, professor, 1948-59; Centre Europeen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, Geneva,

Switzerland, professor, 1959—, founder of S.O.S. committee; École Superieure de Physique et Chimie, Paris, Joliot-Curie professor, 1984—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Croix de Guerre (military cross), 1939-40; Ricard Prize, European Physics Society, 1980; Commissariat prize in atomic energy, French Academy of Science, 1984; high-energy and particle-physics prize, 1989; Nobel Prize in Physics, 1992. Honorary degrees from universities, including University of Geneva, 1977, University of Thessalonica, 1993, Vrije University, 1994, University of Coimbra, 1994, and University of Ottawa, 1995.


(With Dominque Saudinos) La Vie à fil tendu, O. Jacob (Paris, France), 1993.

(Editor) Research on Particle Imaging Detectors, World Scientific (River Edge, NJ), 1995.

(With Richard L. Garwin) Feux follets et champignons nucléaires, O. Jacob (Paris, France), 1997, translation published as Megawatts and Megatons: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001, published as Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2002.

(With Léon Lederman) Enfants, chercheurs et citoyens, O. Jacob (Paris, France), 1998.

(With Henri Broch) Devenez sorciers, devenez savants, O. Jacob (Paris, France), 2002, translation published as Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2004.

Contributor of articles to professional journals.

SIDELIGHTS: Georges Charpak received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1992 for his invention and development of particle detectors, most notably the multiwire proportional chamber. Ironically, Charpak's invention had been used by many of his colleagues who won the coveted prize before Charpak did. Charpak also created the instrumentation used by thousands of scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Physics (CERN) laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, the world's largest laboratory for the study of particle physics—and at other laboratories where the nature of matter is researched.

Born in Poland, Charpak moved to France with his family when he was a child. In 1943 the nineteen-year-old emigré was arrested by the country's Vichy government, then in collaboration with Nazi Germany. Accused of being a terrorist, Charpak was sent to the infamous Dachau concentration camp, but survived to be liberated in 1945. After regaining his freedom Charpak returned to France to finish a degree in civil engineering, and became a French citizen in 1946. He completed his graduate work in nuclear physics at the College de France in Paris, where his mentor was physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie. Here Charpak began building the equipment he needed to conduct his experiments, and was driven by necessity, since the laboratory had little that he needed to accomplish his work. Claiming no natural affinity for engineering or invention, Charpak had to learn such skills in order to progress with his research.

When the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize to Charpak, they referred to the development of detector devices in physics, which devices included the cloud chamber and the bubble chamber that rely on photographic techniques to capture particle events. In 1958 Charpak was invited to come to CERN to work on sparking devices that would detect particles. While these devices represented an improvement over earlier techniques, they too relied on photographic recording, which can be slow and difficult to analyze. Seeking to make a spark chamber that could be read without photographic film, Charpak built his first multiwire proportional chamber in 1968. This device drew from the technology of the Geiger-Muller tube, the bubble chamber, and the cloud chamber, but replaced photographic analysis with computerized electronic analysis.

Next Charpak turned his energies to problems in the aerospace and medical fields, where he made significant advances. In the field of medicine his work has led to greatly increased speed in analyzing protein structures with X rays, and he also worked on problems identifying receptors in the brain. In another area of inquiry, Charpak has worked with particles, seeking to mimic the state of the universe as it was seconds after the Big Bang. One theory holds that certain particles have not existed in nature since that time; the ability to mimic these lost particles and study them would reveal—and increase—scientific understanding regarding the relationships among forces in nature.

Charpak joined Richard L. Garwin to produce the book Megawatts and Megatons: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?, which was reprinted as Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. This volume, stated John F. Ahearne in the American Scientist, is really "two books: one a good primer on nuclear power and the other a detailed discussion of nuclear weapons and potential paths for reduction in total numbers of such weapons." While the book's subject-matter is complex, Ahearne nevertheless found that the authors' "writing is quite relaxed," and even noted that "reading the early chapters is like listening to two friends sitting around talking about what is an atom, what is energy and related issues." The history of the development of nuclear programs in the United States and France is thoroughly covered, and Charpak provides insight into why France's nuclear energy program is one of the most successful in the world. Though both authors support using nuclear energy to create electric power, they acknowledge the dangers involved in doing so, and discuss notable accidents such as those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. They are also realistic about the dangers of spent nuclear fuel being used to create weapons.

Overall, Ahearne cited Megawatts and Megatons as an "excellent introduction to very complex issues that have increased in importance as greenhouse warming has become obvious and terrorist threats have become significant." Gilbert Taylor, a reviewer for Booklist, recommended the work as instructive, well-written, and even-handed, concluding: "The authors' objectivity makes this a public-spirited book that will aid any reader who wants to know more about nuclear energy."

In addition to his scientific work, Charpak has also engaged in more humanitarian efforts. His history as a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp led him to work on behalf of scientists imprisoned by repressive governments around the world. In this capacity he founded the S.O.S. committee at CERN, an association that, during the cold war, worked diligently on behalf of Soviet dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov, and Anatoly Sharansky.



Close, Frank, The Particle Explosion, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987.

Fernow, Richard C., Introduction to ExperimentalParticle Physics, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1986.

Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Sutton, Christine, The Particle Connection: TheDiscovery of the Missing Links of Nuclear Physics, Hutchinson (London, England), 1984.


American Scientist, March-April, 2002, John F. Ahearne, review of Megawatts and Megatons: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?, p. 194.

Booklist, September 15, 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of Megawatts and Megatons, p. 168.

Chemical and Engineering News, February 25, 2002, Michael Heylin, review of Megawatts and Megatons, p. 44.

Guardian, June 5, 2002, Paul Webster, "Probability Proves Your Horoscope Correct," p. 15.

Nature, October 22, 1992, p. 664; August 18, 1994, Walter Gratzer, review of La Vie à fil tendu, p. 515.

New Scientist, October 24, 1992, Marcus Chown, "Detector That Opened Up the Subatomic World," p. 6.

New York Times, October 15, 1992, p. B14.

Physics Today, January, 1993, pp. 17-20.

Science, October 23, 1992, pp. 543-544; January 25, 2002, Frank N. Von Hippel, review of Megawatts and Megatons, p. 632.*