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Pierre-Gilles de Gennes; earned Nobel for liquid crystals work

Professor Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, at his office at the College de France in Paris. Professor Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, at his office at the College de France in Paris. (file 1991/associated press)

PARIS -- Scientist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, a Nobel Prize recipient who was dubbed the "Isaac Newton of our time" for his pioneering research on liquid crystals, has died. He was 74.

Dr. de Gennes died Friday in Orsay, a suburb of Paris, Le Monde reported yesterday.

Dr. de Gennes was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1991 for his breakthrough work on liquid crystals, a substance that has the properties of both a liquid and a solid. Liquid crystals are now used in televisions and computer screens.

On awarding the prize, the jury called Dr. de Gennes the "Isaac Newton of our time."

Dr. de Gennes rejected the comparison, chalking the description up to the "Nordic lyricism" of the Stockholm-based award's jury, French media reported.

Dr. de Gennes was home-schooled by his parents before attending Paris's elite Ecole Normale Superieure university, according to Le Monde.

After graduating, he began research on atomic energy and magnetism.

While other laboratories were paralyzed by the student riots that shook France in 1968, Dr. de Gennes brought together several teams of researchers to work on liquid crystals, Le Monde said. His work helped make France a world leader in the field.

According to a story in The Boston Globe after Dr. de Gennes won the Nobel, he had worked closely with scientists and academics at Brandeis University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which are active in research on liquid crystals.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Dr. de Gennes's "immense talent," calling him "an exceptional physicist and one of our greatest scientists."

"This great researcher . . . didn't stop transmitting his love of science to generations of students as well as the general public," Sarkozy said.

Minister for Higher Education Valerie Pecresse called Dr. de Gennes the "perfect example of the teacher-scientist."

Dr. de Gennes was a member of France's Academy of Science. A high school in Digne-les-Bains, in southern France, and a square in Orsay both bear his name.

He leaves his wife and three children.