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History of LiPhy

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1st January 1966 : The Laboratoire de Spectrométrie Physique was established as an associate laboratory of the CNRS, with Michel Soutif as director, and Jean-Claude Pébay-Peyroula assistant director. This new laboratory was the successor of the General Physics Laboratory of the Faculty of Science (Laboratoire de Physique Générale de la Faculté des Sciences de Grenoble), located in Place Doyen Gosse near the railway station in Grenoble.

The personnel included 65 full time research workers, university lecturers (referred to as teacher-researchers), and graduate students, and 28 technical and administrative staff. It comprised 10 research groups. Their mission was the study of matter by means of “spectrometric” techniques. The range of the spectrum was broad :

Radiofrequency (NMR) (with Pierre Averbuch), Microwaves (EPR) (with Michel Soutif and Yves Merle d’Aubigné), Infrared (André Kahane), Optics, X-rays (Joseph Lajzerowitcz), as well as Slow Electron Spectrocopy (Pierre Ducros). The areas of research were no less diverse, ranging from atomic physics to crystallography of surfaces, and included investigations of metals and alloys by NMR. In addition, a small theory group flourished in the laboratory under the leadership of Yves Ayant, who left his mark on generations of Grenoble students and research workers.

1st September 1967 : The personnel and the equipment of the laboratory migrated to the site of the present Physics Building E on the University Campus of Saint Martin d’Hères. In those days the University campus was an open area with wide green spaces, and a low density of buildings. As a precautionary measure against the nearby Isère overflowing its banks, most of the original University research buildings on this historical flood plain were constructed on stilts.

With time, the laboratory came to be known familiarly, even affectionately, as Spectro.

1970 : The contract of association with the CNRS was renewed, and the Laboratoire de Spectrométrie Physique was designated CNRS Associate Laboratory Nº8 (LA n°8). It now boasted approximately 80 research workers, visitors and graduate students, with 44 technical and administrative staff.

In the wake of the educational reforms of Edgar Faure in 1968, the University of Grenoble meanwhile had been split into three separate universities : the Université Pierre Mendès-France, the Université Stendahl des Langues et Lettres, and the largest of the three, the Scientific and Medical University of Grenoble (Université Scientifique et Médicale de Grenoble) were born.

For Spectro, the return of Jean-Pierre Cohen-Addad in 1970 from the United States brought the study of polymers into the themes of the Laboratory.

1972 : A new building was constructed adjacent to Spectro bearing the name Centre for Studies and Research on Organized Molecules (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur les Molécules Organisées, aka CERMO). Under the driving force of Michel Soutif the resources of the then 5th Plan were assigned to found a “multidisciplinary laboratory involving physicists and chemists with an interest in biology”. From today’s standpoint this initiative can be regarded as visionary, at the very least. Two groups from Spectro, NMR in Polymers and Biopolymers (Jean-Pierre Cohen-Addad) and Molecular Crystals, and Molecular Spectroscopy (Josette Kahane) moved to the CERMO, at the same time as 5 other groups of biologists and chemists. Regrettably, the fusion of these groups into an independent laboratory never took place. Perhaps it was 20 years too early ?

1974 : Development of laser spectroscopy, and the floors of Spectro would soon be flooded with dye from tunable lasers…

Investigations into semiconductors started.

Arrival of a new group, Physical Chemistry of Ionic Polymers (R. Brière), which later (1981) was renamed Semiconductors and Electrochemistry (F. Gaspard).

The permanent employees of the laboratory including researchers and technical staff stabilized, with 47 teacher-researchers and 25 CNRS researchers. This situation stayed practically constant to within one or two members for 30 years, in spite of a high rate of renewal. By contrast, the number of post-graduate students (troisième cycle) diminished.

1977 : The EPR group changed its name to Solid State Optics (Optique du Solide), with Robert Romestain, Jean-Claude Vial and….

Jean-Claude Pébay-Peyroula appointed laboratory director, with M. Minier as assistant director.

Those were lean times for Higher Education in France. Only 1 Further Study (DEA) student was recruited in the whole laboratory in 1977. Fortunately however, the average age of the permanent staff was fairly low, and the teacher-researchers had more time to devote to research. The goal of all young recruited research workers is to prepare and obtain the degree of State Thesis (Thèse d’Etat).

The general secretariat of the laboratory managed nonetheless to operate with a staff of three full-time secretaries.

1978 : Investigations into semi-conductors developed independently in two groups, Solid State Optics and Semiconductors and Electrochemistry.

1980 : Initial experiments in high sensitivity absorption in gas phase using intracavity laser absorption spectroscopy (ICLAS). These set the stage for research into the physical chemistry of the atmosphere.

The National Centre Studies in Telecommunication (CNET) (the future France-Télécom R&D) opened at Meylan. In Spectro, this event raised a certain interest in research into subjects related to microelectronics (still a long way from the nano scale…).

1982 : Yves Merle d’Aubigné and Josette Kahane replace Jean-Claude Pébay-Peyroula and Michel Minier as directors of Spectro.

1982 ? The laboratory bereaved by the death of Joel Duhterian, technical engineer in the group NMR in Polymers and Biopolymers. It was under his impulse that the restaurant reserved for University personnel that bears his name was created.

1985  : The very beginning of studies in porous silicon. Over about 15 years these investigations involved an increasing number of researchers in Spectro, drawn from the three groups, Semiconductors and Electrochemistry, Solid State Optics and Phase Transitions and Structures. Amnong the important contributors to this field were Mireille Ligeon, Francois Gaspard, Roland Hérino, Irinia Mihailescu, Robert Romestain, Jean Claude Vial +

1986 : Josette Kahane agreed to serve again as director, with Gérard Dolino as assistant director.

1987 : The Scientific and Medical University of Grenoble (L’Université Scientifique, (Technologique) et Médicale de Grenoble) changed its name to Université Joseph Fourier.

Creation of a Mixed CEA-CNRS Group to construct an apparatus for molecular beam epitaxy of semiconducting structures, located on the premises of DRFMC.

1989 : Jeanine Lajzerowicz and Nader Sadeghi appointed directors of Spectro.

July 1991 : Reorganization of the Laboratory in its renovated premises, where were enlarged by occupying the space between the pillars of the ground floor. This expansion was accepted because that in the whole the history of Spectro the most serious flooding to have happened on the ground floor was not the river Isère overflowing its banks but water leaking from the upper levels of the building. As for the Isère flood plain, it has been secured by a proper embankment. In principle. Nonetheless, it is recommended to keep our fingers crossed…

1992 : The new ESRF synchrotron produced its first X-ray beams. Spectro, which was directly involved in the construction of the first beam lines, notably BM02, was among the very first to take advantage of the trial period before the official opening of the Facility.

The Phase Transition group turned its interest to the topic of soft matter : films and membranes floating on the surface of water. Biophysics started to enter the picture (perhaps under the influence of Albert Libchaber of Rockefeller University, in whose laboratory two successive researchers spent a postdoctoral internship) as well as complex systems and morphogenesis.

Investigation of electro-wetting phenomena by Bruno Berge, prelude to the foundation of the company VARIOPTIC, which he created later on the basis of a patent lodged under his own name and that of UJF.

The volume of the research staff in the laboratory remained stable, but had undergone a notable change with now as many CNRS employees as teacher-researchers. By contrast the number of 3rd Cycle thesis, and later “New Thesis” students increased from 3 in 1981 to about 20 in 1989. It soon rose to about 40. The “State Thesis” was abandoned, to be replaced by the Certificate of Ability to Direct Research (Habilitation à Diriger les Recherches).

1993 : The Surfaces and Interfaces group leaves Spectro to join the Laboratoire de Cristallographie.

1994 : Inauguration of the ESRF.

1996 : Marcel Vallade replaced Janine Lajzerowicz as director of LSP, with, exceptionally, two assistant directors : Marc Chenevier and Robert Legras.

The Institute of Condensed Matter Physics (Institut de Physique de la Matière Condensée) is established, with Spectro as an associate member.

Increasing interest expressed in research related to life sciences, under various forms.

Spectro recruited a CNRS researcher selected by a biology commission.

2000 : Launch of the State-Region Plan Contract (Contrats de Plan Etats-région, CPER) project entitled New Approaches to Life Sciences (under the impetus of Marcel Vallade) and of the CPER Nanophysics. Spectro was strongly involved in both these highly beneficial projects.

The Atomic and Molecular Physics group split in two : 1) Laser Optics and Applications, and 2) Laser, Dilute Media and Environment.

2000 : Roland Hérino and Anne Corval replaced the trio Vallade-Chenevier-Legras as directors of Spectro.

The character of the Laboratory changed markedly, notably with the increased emphasis on research into “complex systems”, together with developments in near-field microscopy, and in ultrasensitive optical detection systems and their applications. Over the course of several years the laboratory personnel was substantially renewed.

In 2002, the 4-year Activity Report of the Laboratory emphasized 3 themes

Solid State Physics and Nanophysics,

Molecular Physics, Optics and Applications

Morphogenesis, Soft Matter and the Physics-Biology Interface.

2003 : Installation of the Two Photon Intravital Microscopy platform, with the support of researchers from the future Neuroscience Institute (Institut des Neurosciences).

2004 : Benoît Boulanger and Serge Tatarenko were appointed directors of Spectro

The NanoBio programme was launched by UJF and CEA-Grenoble, in association with Spectro.

Redefinition of the laboratory research groups and substantial renewal of the personnel.

Almost a third of the personnel of Spectro was now involved in the theme Physics-Biology Interface, many of whom were working on the instrumental aspects with many also on the conceptual aspects.

2006 : Inauguration of Minatec.

2007 : Institut Néel created. For Spectro, this entailed the loss of a quarter of its personnel, notably the research groups Nanophysics of Semiconductors, Nano-optics and Electroactive Systems, and part of Laser Optics and Applications.

Institut des Neurosciences de Grenoble created.

Launch of the National Research Initiative (Réseau thématique de recherche avancée - RTRA) Nanophysics at the limits of microelectronics, in association with the New Spectro Laboratory

Thierry Dombre and Jacques Derouard appointed directors of New Spectro.

The laboratory had now shrunk to 6 groups with three main themes based on the keywords Complex Matter, Optics, and Physics of and for Living Matter. Renewal of the personnel was maintained with numerous recruits and transfers. The average age of the more than fifty permanent researchers was under 40, while that of the 32 technical and administrative staff was only slightly greater. Collaborations with laboratories from other disciplines (life sciences, environment, medicine, mechanics, materials science, etc.) became more pronounced.

2011 : The Laboratory was renamed Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Physique (LIPhy). Thierry Dombre and Jacques Derouard saw their appointments renewed. During the year 2011 Jacques Derouard became sole director, following Thierry Dombre’s appointment as head of the Teaching and Research Unit (UFR) Physics, Engineering, Earth, Environment Mechanics (PHITEM).

LIPhy pursued its renewal and the number of staff expanded through recruitment and personnel transfer. The activity in theoretical physics was substantially reinforced by the arrival of Jean Louis Barrat, and meanwhile the interface between Physics and Life Sciences consolidated, notably with the arrival of researchers with biological backgrounds. In this progression the historical Spectro did not lag behind : it was strongly involved in international projects in planetology and environment, with some of its members taking part in polar expeditions.

With about 130 to 150 scientists (including interns and visitors) the need for space now started to make itself felt again after the great emptying of 2007.

LIPhy kept abreast of the times by increasing its contract resources by a factor of 2.5 over a period of 4 years. At the end of 2014 these amounted to more than 80% of its resources : half of the research personnel consisted of postgraduate students and postdoctoral visitors.

2014 : As from 1st July 2014 the direction of LIPhy was ensured once again by a duumvirate, Jean Louis Barrat (Director) and Eric Lacot (Assistant Director).

The history of LIPhy would not be complete without a mark of recognition to outstanding members whose departure was premature. These include

The tragic death of R. Brière (1980 ?) profoundly changed the group Physical Chemistry of Ionic Polymers

Joel Duhterian, engineer whose death in 1982 ? was a loss deeply felt in the laboratory, and particularly in the group NMR in Polymers and Biopolymers. It was under his impulse that the restaurant reserved for University personnel that bears his name was created.

Michel Minier, CNRS director of research died in an avalanche while skiing in 1985 ?.

Robert Romestain, CNRS director of research died in a climbing accident in 2005 ?

Epilogue :

Extract from the Dauphiné Libéré of the interview with Michel Soutif following the publication of his book Grenoble, Crossroads of Science and Industry (Grenoble, Carrefour des Sciences et de l’Industrie) Collection Les Patrimoines :

To explain the development of science and of the University in Grenoble, I divided the tale into three seasons : 1850-1900, the season inventions, 1900-1950, the season of engineering, and 1950-2000, the season of research’

“What would you call the fourth “season” of Grenoble, from 2000 to 2050 ?”

I would not venture to anticipate beyond reason, but I have faith nevertheless in the high scientific level and in the growth of life sciences in Grenoble : projects that are underway such as NanoBio, the Grenoble Institute of Neurosciences, or the Institute of Molecular and Structural Biology bear witness to the vitality of Grenoble in the field of medicine and biology. In fact that is the last chapter in this little book.

A detailed version of this article can be read here :

History of LIPhy
Erik Geissler