Biographies & Memoirs

25. Paul Langevin in Memoriam

THE NEWS OF Paul Langevin’s death dealt me a greater blow than most of the events of these fateful years, so fraught with disappointment. Why should this have been the case? Was his not a long life, crowded with fruitful creative work—the life of a man in harmony with himself? Was he not widely revered for his keen insight into intellectual problems, universally beloved for his devotion to every good cause, for his understanding kindness toward all creatures? Is there not a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of the individual, so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art?

The sorrow brought on by Paul Langevin’s passing has been so particularly poignant because it has given me a feeling of being left utterly alone and desolate. There are so very few in any one generation, in whom clear insight into the nature of things is joined with an intense feeling for the challenge of true humanity and the capacity for militant action. When such a man departs, he leaves a gap that seems unbearable to his survivors.

Langevin was endowed with unusual clarity and agility in scientific thought, together with a sure intuitive vision for the essential points. It was as a result of these qualities that his lectures exerted a crucial influence on more than one generation of French theoretical physicists. But Langevin also knew a great deal about experimental technique and his criticism and constructive suggestions always carried a fruitful effect. His own original researches, moreover, decisively influenced the development of science, mainly in the fields of magnetism and ion theory. Yet the burden of responsibility which he was always ready to assume circumscribed his own research work, so that the fruits of his labors emerge in the publications of other scientists to a greater extent than in his own.

It appears to me as a foregone conclusion that he would have developed the Special Theory of Relativity, had that not been done elsewhere; for he had clearly perceived its essential aspects. Another admirable thing is that he fully appreciated the significance of De Broglie’s ideas—from which Schrödinger subsequently developed the methods of wave mechanics—even before these ideas had become consolidated into a consistent theory. I vividly recall the pleasure and warmth with which he told me about it—and I also remember that I followed his remarks but hesitantly and doubtfully.

All his life Langevin suffered from an awareness of the deficiencies and inequities of our social and economic institutions. Yet he believed firmly in the power of reason and knowledge. So pure in heart was he that he was convinced all men should be ready for complete personal renunciation, once they had seen the light of reason and justice. Reason was his creed—a creed that was to bring not only light but also salvation. His desire to promote the happier life for all men was perhaps even stronger than his craving for pure intellectual enlightenment. Thus it was that he devoted much of his time and vital energy to political enlightenment. No one who appealed to his social conscience ever went away from him empty-handed. Thus it was too that the very moral grandeur of his personality earned him the bitter enmity of many of the more humdrum intellectuals. He in turn understood them all and in his kindness never harbored resentment against anyone.

I can only give expression to my gratitude for having personally known this man of purity and illumination.

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