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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 10, No. 2. March 19, 1947

Salient Salutes Great Scientist

Salient Salutes Great Scientist

The French National Assembly, December 19, 1946, the day Paul Langevin died. When the announcement was made six hundred deputies and all the spectators in the visitors' gallery rose in a body and stood in reverent silence as they listened to the eulogy of the deceased. The Government honored him with a National funeral, and on a dark December day in bitter, biting weather, tens of thousands followed his bier to the cemetery. In the procession workers rubbed shoulders with scholars, shop girls marched by the side of professors, trade-unionists with their banners followed academicians.

The work of Paul Langevin scientist, was not of a kind that arouses and moves the masses. His achievements were in the least accessible fields of higher mathematics and physics. Magnetism, paramagnotism diamagnetism, and the introduction of restricted relativity and Einsteinian relativity to France—these were his work. Its fruit is to be found in the detection of underwater obstacles by a supersonic projector with a plezo-electric quartz base, and similar industrial developments. How then can we explain the scene in the National Assembly the reverent procession in weather that chilled to the bone?

Popular Front

Paul Langevin was born in 1872, and entered the School of Physics and Chemistry in 1888, where Pierre Curie exerted a decisive influence on his life. Barely out of the Ecole Normale, he threw himself into the struggle against injustices and tyranny which was being fought round the Dreyfus case. 'He was sent by the city of Paris to work for a year at Cambridge with J. J. Thomson. and there he made a lifelong friendship with Rutherford. In 1902 he became Professor of Physics at the College de France. 1914 found him among the intellectuals who formed a regular group at meetings addressed by Jean Jaures, where he found his political outlook beginning to crystallise. When students were being extensively enrolled in 1920 as strike-breakers. Langevin publicly protested, and began a period of close association with the working-class movement which was to last for the rest of his life. In 1925 he became head of the School of Physics and Chemistry of the University of Paris. With Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse, he was one of the initiators of the World Committee for Peace and against fascism which was formed in 1932, and which later played so important a part in the Reichstag Fire Trial and the international support for Dimitrov. From then on his activity was closely linked with the Popular Front.

Nazi Occupation

When the Nazis occupied France, Langevin was the first university member to be arrested, and he was imprisoned in the grim prison of La Santé in October, 1940. There in the course of Interrogations by the Gestapo, the Nazi Colonel Boehme burg said to him: "You are a man as dangerous to us as the eighteenth century Encyclopedists were to the ancient regime." In 1944, at the age of 72, he escaped across the snowcapped Jura Mountains into Switzerland. Hundreds of his students had been murdered, including his son-in-law, Jacques Solomon, famous like Langevin as a scientist and a Communist. Returning to France on the heels of the liberation armies, although a sick man, he threw himself immediately back into his work, at his side his greatest pupil and associate both in the scientific and the political field, Frederic Joliot-Curie. He was appointed Director of the Government Commission for the reorganisation of public education.

No Ivory Tower

The answer to our question, then, is clear. What the French people honoured in Langevin was not the modern magician, the creator of complicated mathematical formulae, but the man who was a living example of the unity between scientist and the common people, whose whole life was a denial of the academic seclusion observed so rigorously and so disastrously by too many of his colleagues.

In the speech he made at the burial. Professor Joliot-Curie said that Paul Langevin did not consider science merely a brilliant sport of the mind, but a "powerful means of educating and liberating man, with a view to creating more justice and kindness. Paul Langevin embodied two missions: that of the great scientist and that of the great citizen. He sought to enrich our knowledge of the world, and at the same time to create a world in which justice prevails. One finds in his work the imprint of a universal mind as well as extraordinary clarity and accuracy of judgement. It was these high qualities which enabled him to analyze social problems so profoundly and to adopt towards them the attitude we admire. Langevin did not want to be one of an elite of scientists divorced from practical events. It was as a member of a community of workers that he concerned himself with social problems."