Georges Charpak, the man behind the modern particle detector, died yesterday at the age of 86.
Charpak’s journey to physics was an unusual one: He was born in 1924 on the border between Poland and the Ukraine before moving to France at the age of 7. Jewish by birth, he fought the Nazi occupation before being imprisoned, first in a jail in France and later in the concentration camp at Dachau.
It wasn’t until after the war, at the age of 24, that Charpak began his scientific career. He attended the Ecole des Mines in Paris, where he earned a degree in mining engineering, and received a PhD in nuclear physics in 1954 from the College de France. In 1959 he moved to European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, where he quickly found his calling designing particle detectors.
“I have worked on many detectors, some were very elegant [and] useless,” he said in a December 2001 interview for the Nobel Prize website. Among his many designs was the multiwire proportional chamber, an array of parallel wires suspended in a gas. When a particle passed through the gas, it would create ions that would be attracted to the wires. Reading out the resulting current allowed researchers to track particles in real time.
Previously, high-energy physics had relied on photographic plates of tracks in cloud and bubble chambers to determine where particles were moving. Charpak’s detector allowed data to be taken directly to a computer for the first time, allowing real-time tracking. Today, the particle detectors at CERN take a staggering 700 megabytes of data each second.
The work won Charpak the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physics. A man with a wry sense of humour, Charpak downplayed the significance of his detector: “This one wasn’t the most elegant,” he said. “but it was useful.”