"I met him for the first time in 1982 at an FNRS meeting in Liege. The meeting brought together all the researchers working in a particular field (in our case, the theory of elementary particle physics). At the time, I was a young doctoral student, and François made “a point of meeting me to ask me what I was working on. He immediately struck me as friendly, easy-going in his relations with other scientists, and above all very open-minded.”
“François’ fine, intuitive understanding of physics coupled with his powerful calculation skills make for quite a potent cocktail! In the middle of a meal, he can instantly switch from chatting about the weather to discussing a highly complex question on physics that is plaguing him.”
“To me, he’s more than a brilliant collaborator. He’s a dear friend - someone with whom I have had serious conversations on a wide range of subjects over the years, not to mention our frequent fits of laughter about nothing and everything. On a side note, he has a real fondness for sushi and sashimis — me, too!-and we have been to a countless number of Japanese restaurants over the past twenty years.”
"François Englert taught a course on quantum mechanics when I was enrolled as a sophomore student in physical sciences, back in 1969. His pedagogical approach to the subject was truly exceptional at that time, and would probably still be so today; already in the second year of the program, he chose to introduce us to Fermi’s golden rule and the discussion surrounding Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements.
I renewed contact-–this time as a scientist--with Professor Englert in 1979. Several concepts discussed in my doctoral thesis pertained to his research passion at the time, cosmology, which earned him and fellow scientists R. Brout and E. Ginzig the Gravity Research Foundation Prize. Ever since, we have collaborated on some ten research projects, all related to gravity.
What clearly distinguishes François is his ability to approach a subject by directly targeting its essence and reassembling it himself, rather than relying on texts. This allows him to explore the subject with an open mind and, consequently, to offer an original contribution to the field of knowledge.
"François Englert was my Ph.D. supervisor - the person who endowed me with the taste for research. At the time, the theory of Supergravity was still in its infancy, and after returning from a convention on the subject, he decided to venture into this new field. The rest of us followed. It was the beginning of an exciting journey (the first for me!): a tireless quest for a theory of everything.”
“François has always dared to change, not the aim of the research, but the approach chosen to reach it, all the while resisting the temptation of facility. At the time, his field was cosmology, a subject for which he and his fellow physicists, R. Brout and E. Gunzig, had developed the first cosmic inflation model. Previously to that, François had studied elementary particles, for which he and Robert Brout advanced the now well-known mechanism explaining their mass.”
“A glimpse of François’ rich personality: his predilection for long, impassioned scientific discussions with, among others, Robert Brout, his research companion, whose intellectual talents successfully complemented his own; his scientific curiosity and deep-seated interest in and commitment to science, and not the rewards it may reap; and finally, the sincere gratitude he shows towards others.”
Riccardo Argurio was a student when he first met Professor François Englert, who was at the time teaching a course on quantum mechanics. "It was a tough one. He taught without a single set of notes, but his lectures were always rigorously clear and concise. I asked Professor Englert to become my thesis advisor, and five minutes later, he was conversing with me as though I were one of his collaborators. He handed me an article on black holes that had just been published and asked me to work on it. Discussions with him were always intellectually challenging and one had to be doubly attentive to follow what he was saying, but what excitement to be directly immersed in research!" recalls Riccardo Argurio. In fact, it was so exciting that Riccardo decided to pursue a Ph. D. under François Englert’s supervision. "He left us a lot of freedom,” he confides, “and it was us up to us, his doctoral students, to interest him in our research.”
“He was a very cultivated and exuberant supervisor. Sometimes he and Robert Brout would come into my office to talk and I, the young doctoral student, did not dare to ask them to leave although it could be as late as 8:00 p.m.” Riccardo says. “They were both so passionate, so curious about everything. I remember that one evening a colleague from France had come to my office to start work on a draft article. But François declared that we could not work on an empty stomach, so we all went out for dinner. Although it was nearly midnight when we got back to the laboratory, I dutifully sat at my computer, and we all burst out laughing. Needless to say, the article did not get written that night."
“I took Professor Englert’s quantum mechanics class twenty years ago, when I was a second-year student. I remember that as a teacher he really loved engaging his students, and would constantly incite them to question their assumptions. He enjoyed arousing our curiosity and was not afraid to approach his subject in an unconventional manner. For example, he prompted us to decompartmentalize academic disciplines and even explained quantum numbers by drawing a parallel with pink elephants!
More recently, with the development of LHC, I have had the opportunity to rub shoulders with François Englert. He is truly an exceptional person, a man of great intelligence and insatiable curiosity. He also has a lot of charisma. Once, he even described the tricks he would play as a young man—in short, he is indeed quite a character!”
Serge Massar took Professor Englert’s course on quantum mechanics when he was a second-year physics student. "It was a fascinating yet bewildering subject that took me years to understand. Englert would artfully draw us beyond the confines of the course, and opened our minds," he says. Serge defended his Ph.D. dissertation under the supervision of Robert Brout, François Englert’s longtime research partner. "Robert Brout was a humanist who loved all aspects of intellectual creativity: music, literature, science. We would sometimes take a quarter of an hour to walk to the cafeteria, which was just next to our office, simply because he would stop every few feet to discuss an idea he was working on.
Although Robert Brout was American, he had spent much of his life in Belgium. Funnily enough, we discussed science in English, but switched to French to recount our everyday lives. I worked alongside Robert Brout, not far down the hall from Professor Englert’s office. We co-authored several articles together."
“François Englert lives up to the image that we all have of a great physicist: he can be absent-minded, has an imposing presence, shows curiosity for all things, and is even going slightly bald,” Michel Tytgat says impishly. Today, Michel Tytgat works in the Theoretical Physics Research Group, formerly headed by Englert, whose classes he took when he was a student. "Professor Englert really inspired his students. He was fascinating to listen to as he would discuss deep - even abysmally deep - conceptual questions with the greatest of ease!”
Click on the photos to read our testimonies
Anne Taormina, Professor of Mathematics, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Durham University
Philippe Spindel, Full Professor, Head of the Research Department of Mechanics and Gravitation, Faculty of Science, Université de Mons
Marianne Rooman, FNRS Research Director, ULB
Riccardo Argurio, FNRS Research Associate, Mathematical Physics of Fundamental Interactions Research Group, ULB
François Englert under the magnifying glass
“In 1964, Brout and I had realised that our theory was logically faultless.”
François Englert is 81 years old, but he still has his curiosity, his enthusiasm and his desire to have fun by conducting his research. The physicist François Englert, with his friend Robert Brout and Peter Higgs, was at the origin of the prediction of the scalar boson. He is searching for an aesthetic world.
His desk is piled high with various papers and publications. On the wall there are canvases painted by his wife and a few photographs of coloured houses in Chile. François Englert may be 81 years old, but he still comes regularly to his office on the La Plaine campus.
“You know, physics is a sort of drug...
I am still examining certain problems” he smiles, seated behind two brand new computers.
Yet at 18 years old he was heading for an engineering career. He entered polytechnics at the ULB. “During my studies, I came to realise that what I was interested in was understanding the laws governing phenomena and not so much how to use them technically. After graduation, I continued studying physics and then I did a doctorate.” In 1959, he was a Doctor in Physics and took a plane to Cornell University in the United States at the invitation of Professor Robert Brout.
The two men soon developed a great intellectual complicity and a strong friendship. “Our views of physics were very complementary: he had a more Anglo-Saxon approach based primarily on an intuitive image, followed by a theoretic development, whereas I had a more “Latin” approach, proceeding from the formal aspect to the image”, specifies François Englert, “and especially, we both saw physics and knowledge in general as having to break out of specialisation”.
In 1961, as he was finishing his post-doctoral studies, François Englert was offered a situation at Cornell University, but he refused it: he missed Belgium and so he came back to the ULB as a lecturer. Robert Brout was a lover of European culture – particularly the arts – and he was married to a European. He decided to follow his friend and took a plane for Brussels. A few years later, Robert Brout renounced his American nationality to become a Belgian citizen, after which he was definitively incorporated into the ULB.
Starting in 1980, François Englert and Robert Brout jointly directed the Service of Theoretical Physics in the Faculty of Science...
“In 1961, we met Yoichiro Nambu at Cornell University, who introduced into the theory of elementary particles the concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking and who was awarded the Nobel prize in 2008. It was there that Robert Brout and I had begun to study the theory of elementary particles. At the time, long range forces (that is to say, those that affect objects that are very distant) were well understood and certain scientists thought that in this way one could understand phenomena from the scale of the atom all the way to the limits of the observable universe. However, short range forces on the nuclear and subnuclear levels were still a mystery”, specifies François Englert.
“We based ourselves on the symmetry breaking introduced by Nambu and constructed a mechanism engendering short range forces from long distance ones. In 1964, we were sure of the logical coherence of our theory, even though we had not yet glimpsed all its precise implications, and we published our article in Physical Review Letters”. A few weeks later, the Scotchman Peter Higgs introduced the same mechanism. The theory of the three researchers implied the existence of a particle known as the “Brout-Englert-Higgs boson” which the CERN discovered in July 2012. In 1967, this mechanism became one of the essential elements of the “standard model” of the basic interactions initiated by Steven Weinberg’s electroweak theory.
This innovative vision of particle physics took some time to become accepted...
In 1982, François Englert was awarded the Francqui Prize; in 1997, Brout, Englert and Higgs were awarded the European Physical Society Prize; in 2004, they received the Wolf Prize for Physics and in 2010, together with Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble, the J.J. Sakurai Prize of the American Physical Society.