Obituary: Pierre Auger
Wednesday 19 January 1994
PIERRE AUGER had an outstanding career as a research physicist, and was the initiator of several of the scientific collaborations which have given Europe a leading position in fundamental scientific research. He was a tireless organiser who contributed enormously to science and to scientific administration on both national and international levels. A French ambassador once summarised Auger's rare ability as an initiator: 'It's relatively easy to find a good engine to pull a train but there are few people who can get a new train on to the rails in the first place.'
Auger's rise to fame began in 1925, when he discovered the multiple-cloud chamber electron tracks which showed that X-rays could eject several electrons from a single atom. The main photoelectric electron was accompanied by characteristic 'Auger electrons' from an atomic reorganisation. In 1932 he carried out pioneer studies of neutron production from beryllium bombarded by alpha particles. Later turning to cosmic rays, his physics research career was crowned in 1938 by the discovery of the large cosmic-ray showers resulting from the collision of a high-energy particle from outer space with the outer layer of the atmosphere, each collision producing hundreds of millions of secondary interactions extending over hundreds of metres on the ground.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Auger rallied to the Free French Forces and went to Montreal to work with the Anglo-French atomic energy team. As early as 1943, he warned General de Gaulle of the American project to build an atomic bomb. He later moved to the French Scientific Mission in London.
His parallel career as a scientific administrator, which had started in 1939 when he founded the documentation service of the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), took off after the war when he was appointed to a series of key posts. He was Director of Higher Education in France (where he helped establish new national technical institutes), and a founder member, with Frederic Joliot-Curie, of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). In 1948 he became head of Unesco's Exact Sciences Department and it was at a 1950 Unesco Conference in Florence that the American physicist Isidor Rabi proposed that Unesco should 'assist and encourage . . . regional centres and laboratories . . . to increase . . . international collaboration of scientists'. This recommendation was the seed which grew into the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (Cern), in Geneva, one of the world's most successful scientific collaborations.
Auger made this 'Rabi resolution' a reality. Together with Edoardo Amaldi and Denis de Rougemont he was one of the founding fathers of Cern. He travelled around Europe for high-level meetings, which his good contacts made especially fruitful; while his far-sightedness ensured that Cern's government had the correct international flavour. At a Unesco meeting in 1952 the provisional 'Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire' (a title subsequently discarded but which gave the acronym Cern) was set up. It was at this meeting that a famous telegram to Rabi was drafted - 'We have just signed the agreement which constitutes the official birth of the project you fathered in Florence. Mother and child are doing well and the doctors send you their greetings.'
In the late 1950s, at the same time as being CNRS Research Director, Auger became involved in the organisation of space research. On the national level, he was the first president of the National Centre for Space Research (CNES) and on the European level Director General of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) from 1962 to 1967. ESRO developed into the European Space Agency (ESA), one of Europe's outstanding scientific organisations.
Pierre Auger was one of the most influential figures of 20th-century science. Rarely have men of science been able to combine the passion of the researcher with the constraints of scientific administration with such success. The present high standard of European physics and space research stands as a fitting tribute to his industry and imagination.
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