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)

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

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor