PORTRAIT Jean Audouze and the paths of good fortune
Today’s astronomers are anything but the dreamy stargazers we may imagine. Many have their feet firmly on the ground, a taste for action and a curiosity that leads them to be involved in many projects in a very real world. RTD info talks to the French astronomer Jean Audouze, a man whose passion for knowledge is matched only by a desire to communicate it.
Even his briefest CV makes for impressive reading. Then there is the modesty of the man, who speaks of contributing “the little he knows” and smiles at the (relative) eclecticism of his career. “I have rarely been a candidate for anything. Rather, I have accepted offers that have come my way. I am a little like a traveller, looking at the signposts and thinking, well yes, I think I’ll go down that road…”
Chance played its part in Jean Audouze’s interest in the universe. He came to it by way of chemistry and nuclear physics, as the elements he was studying – lithium, beryllium, barium – have major implications for astronomy. In 1970, this led him to a thesis on nuclear astrophysics, under the supervision of Hubert Reeves. For a while the research paths of these two men ran parallel as they shared their passion for discovering and communicating science.
Anglo-Saxon approach "Hubert Reeves taught me a great deal and, in particular, that research does not necessarily consist of doing calculations but of asking the right questions. He also made me aware of the Anglo-Saxon approach where one does not tackle axiomatic and complex problems for the sheer pleasure of it. So I set about looking for the simplest paths to explore. If it is simple, then I can do it. This has influenced me in my way of working.” He continued this approach during his postdoctorate at Caltech, the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory (Pasadena, California), where he worked with W.A. Fowler, a future Nobel prizewinner for physics.
Jean Audouze returned to France in 1974 where he took up a teaching post at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. At this time he also conducted research on nuclear astrophysics, nucleosynthesis, the evolution of galaxies, the interstellar environment and the stars. In 1978, he was asked to head what was then a struggling CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) laboratory: the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris (IAP). "Nobody wanted the job. I must admit that I left it a better place than I found it. If I look back now, as I approach retirement, it is at that institute that I see myself as having been most useful. My view of my other activities is rather vague by comparison.”
He stayed at the IAP until 1989 and for several years managed one of the ‘thematic strategies’ pursued by the CNRS. This was aimed at establishing closer relations between astrophysicists, nuclear physicists and particle physicists, and ultimately led to the creation of a genuine interdisciplinary field that combined these complementary areas of knowledge.
The Universe, always … When asked to sum up his work in just one sentence, Jean Audouze speaks of his focus on “the chemical composition of matter throughout the Universe”. The popular works he has penned tend to confirm this: L'Univers (The Universe), published in France’s very well-known pocket collection Que sais-je?; Enquête sur l'Univers (Investigating the Universe) and L'homme dans ses Univers (Man in his Universes), published by Nathan and Albin-Michel respectively, two major French publishers. Always ready to expand his horizons, Jean Audouze also wrote the accompanying notes for a symphonic poem entitled Univers de Lumière, composed by Graciane Finzi and choreographed by Jean Guizerix, which was first performed at the Seville World Exhibition in 1992. But perhaps his most impressive cultural co-operation has been with Jean-Claude Carrière, a very versatile author with whom he published Conversations sur l'Invisible et Regards sur le Visible (Conversations on the Invisible and Views of the Visible) (Plon, 1996). "I like working with people who look at things in a different way to myself, with other practices, and comparing my knowledge with other experiences. With Jean-Claude Carrière, who is a remarkable writer – Bunuel’s screenwriter no less – I was curious to explore his imagination while he was interested in delving into my knowledge.”
Museums and presidencies This knowledge, coupled with a penchant for information and communication, were factors when Jean Audouze was offered and accepted the presidencies of the Parc et la Grande Halle de la Villette (1993-1996), a cultural centre which puts on a range of events in the arts and sciences, and the Palais de la Découverte (1998-2004), which is none other than the Paris science museum with its famous planetarium. “At all these places the aim was, and remains, to present to the general public themes that will interest them, awaken their curiosity, and stimulate their critical sense and questioning.” The mix under his leadership was certainly varied, notable examples including an exhibition on Pompeii and of the treasures discovered in a galleon that sunk off the Philippines, Tibetan monks invited for a month who produced a mandala that visitors could see every day in the making, a presentation of fairground art, and the history of perfume and paper. “A little of everything, which satisfied my taste for the eclectic," he notes.
Going back a little further in time (1989-1993), one discovers that for a number of years Jean Andouze entered the orbit of French President François Mitterrand, for whom he was scientific adviser. “Freedom, imagination, the creativity of research: these have always been my motivation. When I have held positions of responsibility, it has never been because I wanted to give orders but because I did not want to take them. There is just one exception, when I was adviser to the president. Then I was in the service of someone, and my freedom was somewhat limited as a result.”
European Research Fair Today, Jean Audouze is back at his beloved Institut d’Astrophysique, as researcher. He is also one of the organisers of the new European Fair for Research and Innovation, held for the first time in 2005. The brainchild of the lawyer François-Denis Poitrinal, the event’s principal aim is to bring together worlds between which there is frequent misunderstanding: research and business, science and the public, and the young and not so young. The fair is European in scope because “all the major research projects are carried out on a Europe-wide basis; science is inconceivable on a purely national level”. As far as the general public is concerned, the organisers seek to demonstrate to the layman that research activities are relevant to the world and economy around them – quite simply, that research affects their lives. “Finally, as regards young people, at a time when many complain that few of them want to become engineers or researchers, we would like to make our own modest contribution to demonstrating that there are many interesting jobs in innovation and research, and put these young people in contact with potential employers, whether from the public or private sector.”
In 2004, Jean Audouze was awarded the Kalinga Prize for the Popularisation of Science, by UNESCO, for his work in bringing science to the general public. “When you popularise science, you must not try and gloss over the difficulties, but stimulate people to want to find out more. I try to answer questions, to stimulate questions, and to provide explanations. If I give a conference on the Big Bang, for example, I say that one day this theory will probably be replaced by another one and that it is just a moment in the history of science. Science is a continuing path.”
Research, museums, politics, teaching… if he had to dedicate his life to just one of these fields, which would he choose? “If I had had to take just one path I would not have been happy. But I suppose I could have been solely a researcher.”
He joined the CNRS as a researcher in 1965 at the age of 25 and still pursues research activities there. Over four decades he has been almost continually involved in both research (most notably as Head of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris) and teaching (since 1990, lecturing on relationships ...
He joined the CNRS as a researcher in 1965 at the age of 25 and still pursues research activities there. Over four decades he has been almost continually involved in both research (most notably as Head of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris) and teaching (since 1990, lecturing on relationships between science, society and culture at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris). Between 1993 and 2004 he divided his time between running museums, developing research policy and regular returns to his beloved institute (see article).
Jean Audouze is a member of various international think-tanks on science set up by UNESCO (including the Scientific Group charged with reporting on Energy Ethics), the Committee on Space Research (Cospar), the International Astronomical Union, etc.
In addition to his scientific publications, he is the author of a dozen popular works. He is also one of the 21 researchers who contributed their observations to Le goût de la science – Comment je suis devenu chercheur (The taste for science – How I became a researcher), a collection of texts compiled by Julie Clarini, published by Alvik, Paris, 2005).