The Legacy of Léon Van Hove

29 April 2001

edited by A Giovannini, World Scientific Series in 20th Century Physics, Vol. 28, ISBN 98102243308, 570pp, £55.


The publication of this volume on Léon Van Hove provides a welcome global view of his multifaceted contributions to science. He was CERN’s research director-general from 1976 to 1980, but some of his most important contributions date from his time outside CERN and are little known to the particle physics community. This book consists of reprints of his major scientific papers together with skilful presentations of their significance, as well as discussions of his impact as teacher and scientific statesman.

Léon Van Hove started his career with three years of underground university studies in wartime Brussels. His training and earliest research was in the field of mathematics. In the late 1940s, however, he turned to theoretical physics.

His first papers on statistical mechanics and quantum field theory were mathematically orientated. His rigorous and important papers in statistical mechanics in 1949 prepared the ground for the advances by Ruelle and by Fisher in the 1960s (R Balescu, T Petrosky and I Prigogine); he initiated the perturbation description of large quantum systems in two fundamental papers in 1955 and 1956 (N M Hugenholz).

In the period 1951-1954 he turned, surprisingly and under the influence of Placzek, to phenomenological work on slow neutron scattering, and demonstrated how the space-time correlation function could be measured directly. His papers were a major stimulus to this field and had enormous influence on experiments and applications as well as on theory (N Gidopolous and S W Lovesey). The experimental work by Brockhouse and Shull that used his approach was awarded the Nobel prize in 1994, four years after Van Hove’s death in 1990.

Van Hove’s remarkable scientific change of direction and contributions to particle physics on being invited to head the CERN Theory Division in 1960 are described by several close collaborators: M Jacob on ultrarelativistic heavy-ion collisions, A Giovannini on multihadron production and J J J Kokkedee, W Kittel and A Bialas on high-energy collisions and internal hadron structure.

Van Hove was also an outstanding teacher, scientific administrator and policy maker. Close associates describe his activities in these diverse areas.

Of his Utrecht PhD students in the 1950s, we learn that several became outstanding physicists, for example the Nobel prizewinner M Veltman. (N M Hugenholtz and Th W Ruijgrok). His activities as leader of the CERN Theory Division and as research director general of CERN are described by F Bonaudi, M Jacob, E Gabathuler and V Soergel, while his period as director at the Max-Planck Institute at Munich is covered by N Schmitz. M Bonnet describes his time as advisor to the European Space Agency and the special role he played in developing the Solar-Terrestrial Programme.

The fact that Léon Van Hove came from a field outside particle physics made him particularly sensitive to the potential of high -energy physics in non-traditional areas. For instance, he realized the scientific significance of ultrarelativistic heavy-ion physics at a time when it was still unpopular at CERN. He threw his scientific weight behind this initiative and even focused his own scientific research on it. His intuition has recently been vindicated by the discovery of quark-gluon plasma effects.

This scientific intuition also showed itself in the bold decisions – described both by colleagues and by Van Hove – leading to the construction of the antiproton-proton collider and the discovery of the W and Z particles. Further, it is an excellent initiative to include an autobiography.

The book closes with a documentation of Van Hove’s opinions and attitudes on various issues, compiled in his own words from his speeches and private papers by his son Michel.

This volume gives a fascinating account of the scientific life of a multifaceted physicist with many talents and is highly recommended.

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