2007 Irène Joliot-Curie Prize Winner
For theoretical physicist Monique Combescure, who was awarded the “woman scientist of the year” distinction in 2007, understanding how quantum particles interact and change over time is as simple–or as complex–as fighting for gender equality in today's scientific community. Lucky for us, she excels in both fields.
© H. Raguet/CNRS Photothèque
Despite her unusually penetrating look and a keen sense of perception, Monique Combescure never saw it coming. The 2007 Irène Joliot-Curie Prize she was awarded for female scientist of the year, “was a lovely surprise!” she exclaims. “For me, this prize rewards the work of all women researchers,” the physicist and senior CNRS researcher asserts. “The fact that the jury chose a ‘hard’ science ought to encourage my fellow women scientists to pick it as a career, and without being ruthlessly ambitious, pursue what they believe in as far as they can.”
Combescure, an energetic woman who has been at IPNL1
for five years, after working for many years at the Orsay campus, speaks passionately about her subject, theoretical physics. Her work, which is highly respected by her fellow scientists, focuses on problems in quantum physics. Namely “making predictions about changes in physical systems involving particles located within the atom–quarks, neutrinos, leptons, etc.,” she explains. “These particles can also act as carriers of so-called quantum information, which could become the basis for a new kind of computer.”
Yet Combescure speaks just as passionately about mathematics, literature, or playing the organ. At 57, she puts no limits on what she wants to do. In fact, when she started out, Combescure, the eldest sister of six brothers, wanted to devote her life to the piano. “It was my mother who discouraged me for professional reasons,” she recalls. Later, as she was about to start studying literature, she opted for physics at the last minute. It was more than an act of rebellion, “it was also a response to the deep-rooted questions I’d had about matter ever since I was little. The beauty and nature of a candle flame already fascinated and filled me with wonder.” While preparing the entrance exam in Grenoble and after getting in the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Jeunes Filles in Paris in 1971, she hesitated between experimental physics and mathematics. In the end, her pioneering spirit pushed her towards research in quantum physics, which she discovered through the “stirring” lectures given by Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Nobel Prize winner for physics in 1997. Another revelation was May 1968, the trace of which can be found throughout her career in her role as a trade unionist. To this day, she participates in many of CNRS’ decision-making bodies, defending her belief that fundamental research must be preserved.
In 1972, Combescure, together with Jean Ginibre, the director of her doctoral thesis in theoretical physics at Orsay, decided to tackle three-body problems, or the way in which three quantum particles interact and evolve over time, and more specifically diffusion theory. The latter explores how the movement of each quantum particle is influenced by the other two, and studies more particularly this specific moment when their motion becomes totally free from that of the others. “At the time, nothing much was happening in this field. Three-body equations were already used in nuclear physics, but we wanted to formalize them in a simpler way.” In 1974, she joined CNRS while still remaining at her laboratory, and shortly afterwards published a groundbreaking article on the mathematical physics approach to diffusion theory. This paper was the starting point of a productive collaboration with mathematicians, despite what she refers to as their “slightly frightening desire to explain everything by equations.” Not to be put off, Combescure strove to bring the two disciplines closer together from 1988 on. Thirteen years later, the collaboration took shape as the “Mathematics and Quantum Physics” European Research Network.
Mission accomplished? Yes, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing in this male-dominated world. Taking turns with her husband to look after their four children, she attended fewer conferences and published less often than expected at an age when most scientists become senior researchers. “It was above all a question of self-censorship, I didn’t feel that I was achieving enough. “I think this still applies today to the newer generations.”
Which is why Combescure takes part in conferences on gender inequalities in physics, and why she puts considerable efforts to show high school students how fascinating science is. Amazingly, she still finds time to play the organ and pursue her theological and musical research into Bach’s Little Organ Book. Her quest for the beautiful never ends.
1. Institut de physique nucléaire de Lyon (CNRS / Université Lyon).