Profile: Albert Libchaber; March 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Mukerjee; 3 Page(s)
The walls of his bedroom are lined with books, original editions of works by the greats--Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Galileo, Poincar., anyone I can think of. Albert Libchaber pulls out the volumes one by one, running his fingers along favorite passages and translating for my benefit. Kepler's musings, in 1611, on a snowflake: a "nothing" that reveals in its symmetry the atomic structure of matter. Hooke's drawings of a fly's eye, revealed by one of the earliest microscopes. Lyapunov's treatise on the stability of motion, presaging chaos theory. His heroes, Libchaber explains, are Huygens and Kepler: "They are more passionate, more human, more romantic, therefore less well known than Galileo or Newton." He is disappointed that I cannot name any heroes of my own; he would have liked to thrill me by pulling out their works.
Staring at Huygens's exquisite diagrams of the pendulums he crafted and studied, I suddenly see the wellspring that inspires Libchaber. "I have a feeling, if an experiment is aesthetic it will tell me something," he had said earlier in his soft, almost inaudible voice. "I will not do an experiment if it is not beautiful. " Libchaber emulates his heroes, whose genius touches him through the pages of these books. He asks direct, simple questions--doing, as someone said, 19th-century physics with 21stcentury equipment. In 1979 his precise techniques led him to see, in a tiny cell of liquid helium at the .cole Normale Sup.rieure in Paris, how a fluid's flow becomes disordered--the first close look at chaos in nature.