Georges Charpak Biography

Georges Charpak, a Polish-born French Nobel laureate physicist, revolutionized the field of high-energy physics with his invention of the multi-wire proportional chamber. This groundbreaking invention became the heart of almost every experiment in particle physics by the 1990s and found applications in medicine, biology, and industry. Prior to receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention, two researchers who utilized Charpak’s invention were awarded the prestigious prize. In addition to his scientific achievements, Charpak held important administrative roles, including being a professor at École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles and a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Quick Facts

  • Born in August
  • Also known as Jerzy Charpak
  • Died at age 86
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Dominique Vidalf
    • Father: Maurice Charpak
    • Mother: Anna Charpak
    • Siblings: Andre Charpak
  • Born in Ukraine
  • Holocaust survivor
  • Physicist
  • Died on September 29, 2010
  • Place of death: Paris, France
  • Education: École des Mines
  • Awards: Nobel Prize in Physics 1992

Childhood & Early Life

Georges Charpak was born Jerzy Charpak on August 1,1924 to Anna and Maurice Charpak in the village of Dabrowica in Poland. His parents belonged to the Jewish community. He had a brother, Andre Charpak who eventually became an actor and film director.

At the age of seven, Charpak’s family shifted base from Poland to Paris. Ten years later in 1941, young Charpak began his formal education at the Lycee Saint Louis, studying mathematics. Thereafter he studied at Lycee de Montpellier.

During World War II, Charpak served in the resistance. In 1943, he was imprisoned by Vichy authorities. The following year, he was deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, where he remained until 1945.

Liberated from the Nazi camp, Charpak resumed his studies, enrolling at the Ecole des Mines, a prestigious engineering school in France in 1945. Three years later, he graduated from the same, earning the French degree of Civil Engineer of Mines equivalent to Master’s degree.

Following his graduation degree, Charpak became a student of Frederic Joliot-Curie at College de France in 1949. In 1954, he received his PhD in nuclear physics from the College de France. The subject of his thesis was low radiation due to disintegration of nuclei.


While studying for his PhD, Charpak secured a research position for the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He worked there until 1959.

In 1959, Charpak joined the staff of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva. It was there that he conducted his life’s most important research and discovery.

A year following his entry at CERN, Charpak participated in the first exact measurement of the magnetic momentum of the muon. The team discovered that muon was not a separate particle of the nucleus but just a heavy electron. Next, he focused on the development of various types of non-photographic scintillating chambers from 1961 to 1967.

In 1968, he invented and developed the multiwire proportional chamber. The chamber was basically an advanced version of old bubble chamber which had become out-dated and archaic. The new chamber allowed for better data processing. Also, it assisted in sensing, evaluating and recording hundreds of millions of particles in a second.

Charpak’s invention of the multiwire proportional chamber was revolutionary in the field of particle physics. Unlike its predecessors such as the cloud chamber or the bubble chamber which recorded the tracks left by particles at the rate of only one or two per second, the multiwire chamber recorded up to one million tracks per second and transmitted the data directly to a computer for analysis. Furthermore, old chambers depended on taking photographs of the tracks left by particles as they emerged from collision but Charpak’s chamber used miniscule wires to capture electric pulse thus generating more information.

Following his discovery of multiwire proportional chamber, Charpak together with Ngoc and Policarpo, jointly invented the scintillation drift chamber during the latter half of the 1970s. Meanwhile in 1974, he introduced spherical drift chambers for studies of proteins by X-ray diffraction.

From 1979 to 1989, Charpak turned his interest to multistage avalanche chambers. He was involved in the introduction of multistage avalanche chambers and application of photon counters for the imaging ionizing radiations.

Towards the end of his career at CERN, Charpak participated in experiments at Fermilab (USA) from 1985 to 1991. He introduced chambers based on luminescent avalanches. He played an important role in the development of instrumentation for biological research using b-ray imaging.

Post being felicitated with the Nobel Prize, Charpak applied the principles of his invention in biology and medicine. It was his research that led to the development of a camera used by NASA to monitor astronauts’ hearts. He further developed an X-ray machine that used one-tenth of the radiation of a conventional X-ray machine. He also worked on ways to reprogram cancerous cells so as to make them less malignant.

Apart from his scientific research, Charpak held several administrative responsibilities. In 1980, he became professor-in-residence at École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles in Paris (ESPCI). He held the Joliot-Curie Chair in 1984. At the institute, he successfully developed and demonstrated powerful applications of the particle detectors invented by him.

Charpak was co-founder of a number of start-ups in the biomedical arena, including Molecular Engines Laboratories, Biospace Instruments and SuperSonic Imagine, together with Mathias Fink. He was a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Charpak was a very strong advocate of nuclear power in France. He developed a radon detector to help predict earthquakes. Prior to this, he investigated radiation to find subterranean minerals.

Major Work

Charpak’s most important contribution in particle physics came in 1968 when he invented and developed the multi-wire proportional chamber. The chamber was one-of-its-kind then as it was way ahead of its predecessors, cloud chamber or bubble chamber. Unlike its forerunners which recorded the tracks left by particles at the rate of only one or two per second, the multi-wire chamber recorded up to one million tracks per second. Furthermore, it transmitted its data directly to a computer for analysis thus eliminating the process during which scientists scanned thousands of photographs one by one.

Awards & Achievements

In 1985, Charpak was elected to the French Academy of Sciences.

In 1992, Charpak was conferred with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention and development of particle detectors, in particular the multi-wire proportional chamber. In March, 2001 Charpak received Honorary PhD from University of the Andes, Colombia, Bogotá.

Personal Life & Legacy

Charpak tied the nuptial knot with Dominique Vidal in 1953. The couple was blessed with three children.

Charpak became a naturalized French citizen in 1946. He breathed his last on September 29, 2010 in Paris, France. He was 86 years of age then.


Interestingly, even before Charpak received his Nobel Prize for the invention of particle detectors, two Nobel Prizes were awarded to scientists who used Charpak’s device for identifying subatomic phenomena.

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