The name chosen for the centre is that of a renowned international scientist, Professor Gabriel Lippmann, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1908. This name honours the memory of a European scientist, to this day the only Nobel Laureat born in Luxembourg.
Gabriel Lippmann was born on August 16th, 1845 of French parents in Bonnevoie (Luxembourg) where his father ran a tannery and a glove factory. Three years later, his family left to settle in Paris. Lippmann received his early education at home, from his mother, before entering the Lycée Napoléon in 1858. During his school career, he was not a model pupil. His originality and his independence of mind meant that he was only interested in certain subjects. This was still the case at teachers’ training college which he entered in 1868. He chose not to follow courses leading to the examination which would have qualified him as a teacher.
In 1873, he took part in an official scientific mission to Germany, in order to study methods of teaching science there: he worked with Wilhelm Kühne, a physiologist, and Gustav Kirchhoff, the inventor of spectral analysis, at the University of Heidelberg where he passed his doctorate in philosophy with the distinction “summa cum laude” in 1874. He also studied the relations between electrical and capillary phenomena. This led to the development, inter alia, of a capillary electrometer with extreme sensitivity.
He then made a brief visit to Berlin, to the laboratory of Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz, physicist and physiologist, before returning to continue his experiments in Paris. On July 24th, 1875, he submitted his PhD thesis on electro-capillarity to the Sorbonne.
Lippmann joined the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1878, and was appointed Professor of Mathematical Physics in 1883. That year he was also elected a Member of the Academy of Sciences, of which he became President in 1912.
In 1886, he was appointed Professor of Experimental Physics. He then succeeded the physicist Jules Jamin to the post of Director of the Research Laboratory which would later be transferred to the Sorbonne. He held that post until his death.
Professor Lippmann developed the general theory of his process for the photographic reproduction of colours in 1886, but its practical implementation still posed problems. However, after years of patient and skilled experimentation, he presented his process to the Academy of Sciences in 1891. In 1893, he presented photographs taken by Auguste and Louis Lumière in which the colours were produced with perfect orthochromatism. He published his complete theory in 1894.
In 1893, he welcomed to his laboratory a young Polish student called Maria Sklodowska, becoming her thesis director. The young woman made such a good impression upon him that he introduced her to one of his best assistants: Pierre Curie. The marriage of the two Lippmann protégés in 1895 would mark the start of a fruitful scientific association.
In 1895, Lippmann developed a method to eliminate the personal equation in measuring time by using photographic recording. He also studied the elimination of irregularities of pendulum clocks, designing a method to compare the oscillation time of two pendulums of an almost equal period.
Lippmann was the author of many fundamental contributions in a large number of sectors in physics, particularly electricity, thermodynamics, optics and photochemistry. He promoted astronomy with the invention of the coelostat, a device which immobilise the image of a star and its neighbouring stars so that a photograph can be taken. He also made some ingenious improvements to numerous standard physics instruments.
His work was principally published in communications from the Academy of Sciences in Paris where his papers were noted for their conciseness and originality. In 1908, he received the Nobel Prize for Physics for having elaborated his undulatory wave theory of light, from which the interferential photograph is the practical result.
Member of the Office of Longitudes and a foreign member of the Royal Society of London, Gabriel Lippmann died at sea on July 13th, 1921, when returning from a mission to North America, led by Marshal Fayolle.