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1924-2005: From Crystals to the Stars, Portrait of Hubert Curien

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1924-2005: From Crystals to the Stars, Portrait of Hubert Curien

Hubert Curien: Emeritus Professor at UPMC

Passion for science
Hubert Curien was born in Cornimont, in the Vosges region of France, on the 30 October 1924.

After studying at the Lycée Saint-Louis upper secondary school in Paris, he returned to his native region in the summer of 1944 to join the underground resistance movement.  Returning to Paris in 1945 he was accepted both at the Ecole normale supérieure and at the Ecole polytechnique.  He chose the first and left with an 'agrégation' (France’s highest teaching diploma for admission to the professoriat) in physics.

In 1951, he defended his thesis on the study of elastic waves and thermal diffusion of X-rays in the body-centred cubic lattice of alpha iron.  Throughout his career, Hubert Curien specialised in the fields of crystallography, the physics of solids and mineralogy.  His increasing importance in this discipline would lead a team to name a mineral after him; curienite was discovered in 1968 in the Mounana uranium field in the Gabon.

A lifelong man of science, Hubert Curien juggled the careers of teacher, director of various prestigious establishments and minister.  From assistant lecturer in 1949, he became senior lecturer in 1953, at just 29 years old.  In 1956, he became professor at the faculty of science at the Sorbonne then, until 1994, at UPMC where he taught mineralogy and crystallography, initially under Charles Mauguin and Jean Wyart.  He created new doctoral studies in crystallography at the Sorbonne.  From 1954 to 1970, he was also professor at the ENS (Ecole normale supérieure) on the preparatory course for the 'agrégation' in physics and chemistry.  In 2003, he took retirement and became emeritus professor of UPMC.

In 1966, Hubert Curien joined the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique; French national centre for scientific research) as director of the physics mathematics department.  He discovered, most notably, a new crystal structure of gallium in the course of his work at the Université de Paris laboratory of mineralogy and crystallography.  It was due to this that, between 1963 and 1969, he was a member of the executive committee of the International Union of Crystallography, in 1967, President of the Société Française de Minéralogie, and in 1969, President of the Association Française de Cristallographie.

A man at the highest spheres
From 1969 to 1973, he assumed directorship of the CNRS then, from 1976 to 1984, he was president of the CNES (Centre National d'Études Spatiales; French national centre for space research).  In 1978, he instigated the SPOT Earth observation programme and the Argos tracking system.  Then, from 1979 to 1984, he was the first president of the European Space Agency. With 1979 also being the year of the first successful launch of the Ariane rocket, this space enthusiast would shortly after create the company Arianespace, whose many successes are widely recognised.  Hubert Curien is considered by many scientists as the father of the European rocket.  From 1994 to 1996, he was chairman of the council of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN; Centre européen de la recherche nucléaire), thus demonstrating his profound contribution to European research.  At about the same time, and until 1997, he was president of Academia Europea and, from 2001 to 2003, the Académie des sciences, of which he had been a member since 1993.
In 1984, Hubert Curien was appointed as French Minister of Research and Technology.  He continued this role under four prime ministers: Laurent Fabius, Michel Rocard, Edith Cresson and Pierre Bérégovoy.  He constantly strove to prioritise research, increasing the workforce and public funding.  He laughingly said: "pluridisciplinarity is also the creation of new disciplines...And there is one that promises to make major progress and that's subsidiology, finding money!"

Science for allHubert Curien also demonstrated his passion for research by creating, in 1992, the Science en Fête, a major public event that, a few years later, would become the Fête de la science.

A Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, a brilliant, profoundly academic mind, committed to and enthusiastic about research, Hubert Curien died in the Loiret region of France, on the 6 February 2005, at the age of 80.  He was laid to rest in the village of his birth.