assembly with Pierre Agostini, Nobel Prize winner in physics | EUROtoday

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Ua agency and frank handshake earlier than touchdown in a haven of peace, lined with albums by John Coltrane in addition to books by Joseph Conrad and Jack Kerouac. When we lay our eyes on the espresso desk, we discover ourselves dealing with The Pole, “The Pole”, the guide by the South African novelist JM Coetzee. “It reminds me of Ockham’s razor, he tells things without embellishment,” confides Pierre Agostini. What is placing once we meet him for the primary time in his Parisian condo is his extraordinary simplicity. “At Ohio University, the place I proceed to show as professor emeritus, I used to be advised I used to be a god. However, in my life, nothing has modified, explains the 82-year-old scientist, who readily paraphrases a quote from Pierre Dac. The future is behind me. »

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And but, simply 5 months in the past, he acquired the Nobel Prize in Physics. The subject of statement of the one that will communicate on February 29 on the Paris-Saclay Summit? With the Frenchwoman Anne L'Huillier and the Austro-Hungarian Ferenc Krausz, his two co-recipients, this researcher, who spent a big a part of his profession on the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), put himself on the head of unlock the secrets and techniques of the infinitely small. And notably targeted on electrons, which, gravitating round nuclei, type atoms. To do that, the researchers bombarded these electrons with photons, with pulses of more and more shorter length, the ultimate frontier being attosecond, or 10-18 second.

The electron, basic half

“To perceive how essential a problem that is, we should keep in mind that there’s the identical hole between a second and an attosecond as between the age of the universe and the length of a heartbeat “, explained to Point CNRS research director Franck Lépine, during the announcement of the Nobel Prize in October 2023. “Concretely, we are talking about using light to observe and control the properties of matter by acting directly on electrons. Particles which, at the origin of the creation of chemical bonds, constitute a sort of glue holding molecules and matter together. The electron is truly the fundamental part of all mechanisms, both in nature and in technology. specified the scientist, who regularly collaborates with Anne L'Huillier and her co-recipients. And what is all this for? “It is a field of fundamental research – which makes it possible, for example, to test the laws of quantum mechanics – but whose concrete applications are also already very clearly seen in fields as varied as materials science, electronics, early diagnosis of diseases, optimization of solar cells, etc. »

This passion for the secrets of the infinitely small came to Pierre Agostini late in life. “I grew up in Tunis, with my younger brother and my older sisters. I remember the very hot summers and the officers' beach in Salambo. Alaoui college was not very far away. To go to Carnot high school I needed a bike! » explains the man who, when he lives in Paris (that is to say half the year, he spends the rest of the time in the United States), always engages in a thirty-minute training session a day .

“I was a pretty good student. At 17, I left Tunisia for the National Military Prytanée, in Sarthe, and studied more in literature, initially more oriented towards math. A radical life change that I endured for three years! » he says. At the time, this son of a soldier was a bit rebellious, especially when he discovered the counterculture. “I liked novels and jazz music that my parents hated,” pursues the one who discovers The Sound and the Fury, the novel by the American William Faulkner, at 17 years old.


Nevertheless, science full of curiosities begins to attract him: “I always loved math, and I started getting interested in physics at university. At the beginning, I saw myself more as an engineer, which was my first title at the CEA, and research, with the fascination for open questions, caught up with me when I was already 27 or 28 years old. » For what reasons ? “It’s an interest that came to me as I gained more and more experiences,” he reveals.

Retracing the career of Pierre Agostini means revisiting the history of lasers, the invention of which is as significant in his eyes as the theory of evolution or even the discoveries on the structure of the cosmos. Moreover, the latter have continued to gain in power. At the time of his explorations, the researcher came across physicist Gérard Mourou, also a Nobel Prize winner, a specialist in electric fields and lasers, who came several times while he was working for the CEA in Saclay to borrow equipment from him. Although he loves experiences, Pierre Agostini was also marked by the quality of Claude Cohen-Tannoudji's courses at the Collège de France, whose “mathematical rigor”. Also in his pantheon, the American physicist Steven Weinberg, who received the Nobel Prize in 1979, “for the clarity of his explanations even if I don’t understand everything! » he smiles, or the Scottish legend of electromagnetism James Maxwell (1831-1879), “for the beauty of its equations…”.

We can't help but ask this affable man what his relationship with time is. “One of the problems of time is the relationship with the continuum: is time infinitely divisible? Despite the appearance (pico, femto, atto, zepto…), it seems that there is an absolute limit with Planck time, like atoms limit the continuum of space. However, let us be reassured, we are still far from this limit set at 1044 seconds! » he elaborates.


How does working on the infinitely small lead us to review the certainties of the traditional physical world? “The world of the very small is completely different from what our intuition suggests to us. Indeed, neither entanglement nor superposition, in short, nothing in quantum physics resembles what we know intuitively. » Should we then encourage students and professors to launch their entrepreneurial projects, as is the case in a large part of American universities? “I have seen many American students who, once they obtained their doctorates, created a start-up. It seems to me that this is a good thing. Even if fundamental research remains unbeatable for discoveries,” explains this father of a daughter, Brigitte, and grandfather of two grandchildren aged 22 and 24.

Doesn't he miss discoveries and experiments, he who today limits himself to giving lessons while spending half his life in Ohio? His eye lights up. “I had a lot of fun transmitting my passion, I continue to have fun,” he realizes, a light in his eyes. Appetite is intact. Would he one day like to invest more in France? “I am at the disposal of the University of Saclay, if they need me…” The message got through.


July 23, 1941 Birth in Tunis.

1956 Arrival in France.

1967 Defends his thesis and joins the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Saclay.

2002 Retirement from CEA.

2005 Appointed professor of physics at Ohio State University.

2023 Co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to attosecond science, alongside Ferenc Krausz and Anne L'Huillier.