Obituary: Pierre Auger

Pierre Victor Auger, physicist, administrator: born 14 May 1899; Professor, Faculty of Sciences, University of Paris 1937-93; Director of Higher Education, Ministry of Education, Paris 1945-48; Director, Department of Natural Sciences, Unesco 1948-59; Chairman, French Committee for Space Research 1959-62; Director General, European Space Research Organisation 1962-67; married 1921 Suzanne Motteau (two daughters); died 24 December 1993.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence