Margaret and Dick   


June '09: Nobel in the 'hood
In the US, we name streets after presidents, trees, flowers. The French name their streets after famous generals and intellectuals: artists, musicians, writers, and scientists. And when a local boy wins the Nobel prize in physics – doesn’t happen often here in the Aude valley! – a naming fête is sure to follow.

Recently the tiny village of Montclar honored one of its own, Albert Fert, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007, renaming the central place in his honor and placing a plaque on his family home.  I know Montclar best by bicycle:  it’s at the top of a long hill climbing the Malepere mountain near Limoux.  The beautiful pastoral countryside has vineyards at lower elevations and cow pastures at the top.  I joined the festivities, of course, because (a) Fert works in a specialty close to my background in solid state physics and I knew of his clever discovery in the 1980’s, (b) I just had to see what this tiny village would do to celebrate a  homeboy savant, and (c) there would be wine and food.

The Carcassonne Academy of Arts and Sciences had organized a gala weekend.  Village festivities began on Saturday morning.  I had emailed Fert that I knew his village by bicycle and would be joining the festivities.  He graciously replied, “Biking up to my village is really good training.”  High up in this hilltop village, the crowd began to gather, ending up with over a hundred people in a village of fifty.  Fert has a refreshing, friendly personality, without a trace of self-importance.   He was openly moved by the festival.

After several speeches by local political notables, the crowd moved to the church square where Fert pulled the rope on a French flag to reveal the plaque renaming Fert Place, and then we moved over to unveil the plaque on the family home.  The family has quite a story.  During World War II, the Fert children lived here with their grandparents.  Their mother was teaching in Toulouse, and their father, a science teacher, was a prisoner of war in Germany.  Grandma earned subsistence wages in Carcassonne, commuting home on weekends by train and bicycle.  Fert’s daughter remembered that by the end of the war Grandma had developed really great legs from cycling up the hill.  The Mayor remembered that after school Albert and his brother André would be in the house studying while the other kids were out playing.  Brother André, a physics professor at INSA Toulouse, was of course present at Montclar for the festivities.

The commanderie of the Grand Wines of the Cote de la Malepere paraded out in their robes and funny hats to initiate Fert as an honorary member of their honorary order.  The commander noted that with one Nobel prize in a town of fifty, Monclar’s level of Nobel laureats per capita is 10,000 times that of France!  Stacked up at the podium were a hundred fancy wooden boxes engraved with a commemoration of the Fert fête.  We all left with a fine souvenir:  in each box were two bottles of very good local wine.  Every region around here has its commanderie to honor the local best products, be it wine or beans or potatoes.  Luckily our region favors the wines, which means that a vin d’honneur of wine with munchies capped this and any festive occasion.

The local Academy of Arts and Sciences hosted a scientific symposium in Fert’s honor, so in the late afternoon I sobered up to drive to the gorgeous old theater in downtown Carcassonne, where several hundred people gathered to learn about “Spintronics:  spin invites itself into our computers and telephones.”  Spintronics is the clever name Fert coined for the microelectronic devices resulting from his Nobel invention.  I wracked my brain trying to remember what it was all about, but my brain officially retired from physics 20 years ago.  It was like trying to ride a bike after it has been left out in the rain so the chain and gears are all rusty.  Oil can!

The idea is devilishly clever.  Electrons that have passed through a metal layer magnetized in a given direction have a tough time getting passing through a nearby layer magnetized in the opposite direction.  But apply a little magnetic field and both layers become magnetized in the same direction, and the electric current goes way up, hence the name:  Giant magnetoresistance (GMR).  (As in advertising, catchy titles are highly valued in physics.)  Make a tiny gadget out of it and you can pack information onto a magnetic disk at a much higher density than is otherwise possible.  My rusty old brain creaked into motion as he told the story.

Most folks in the audience were (safe to say) not up to speed on GMR, but let’s give them credit for turning out for the homeboy-made-good.  Fert politely answered questions, some scientific and some pseudo.  Can his discovery reduce the dangers to the brain from cell phones?  “Bien sûr, and here’s how.”  This guy is really good!

With the help of my local physics buddy Peyrade, I talked my way an exclusive wine tasting that evening at our local winery Anne de Joyeuse, which had supplied the wine and fancy wooden boxes for the Montclar party.  I never expected to use my physics degree here in the Aude valley, but today it served as a passport to a lovely event. 

Congratulations to Albert Fert and to the little village that now commemorates his accomplishments!

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