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Robert Klapisch (1932–2020)

Robert Klapisch
(Image: Klapisch family)

Robert Klapisch passed away on 21 March 2020, to the immense sadness of those who knew and loved him. Our thoughts are with his family, particularly his three children, Coline, Cédric and Marianne. 

Robert was a tireless worker, not only passionate about the field of fundamental physics, covering both nuclear and particle physics, but also ever eager to hear about innovative developments in any scientific field. His motto was always: progress through science. Once a goal had been set, Robert pulled out all the stops to achieve it, following a well-defined path, supported by the courage of his convictions, an infectious enthusiasm and tenacity at every turn. The many facets of his personality made Robert an endearing friend and a highly appreciated colleague. His background had forged his character: open-minded, supportive of others, committed, loyal and with an irresistible joie de vivre. A fine example of a human being.

Robert was born on 26 December 1932 in Cachan. After studying at the École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles (ESPCI) in Paris, he went straight on to join the CNRS in 1956. At the Radium Institute, he became proficient in mass spectrometry and precision isotopic separation under the supervision of his mentor, René Bernas. Later, Robert became the director of CSNSM (Centre de spectrométrie nucléaire et de spectrométrie de masse) and transformed it into an innovative centre of excellence producing many applications for mass and nuclear spectrometry.

Robert Klapisch and his team carried out pioneering research using “online” mass spectroscopy on accelerator beams, notably at CERN’s Proton Synchrotron (PS) and then at ISOLDE. At this brand new online isotope separator, the team also carried out the first ever laser spectroscopy, which, when combined with mass spectroscopy, enabled unprecedented studies of exotic short-lived nuclei. This work allowed them to make significant advances in the fields of astrophysics (nucleosynthesis of rare light elements) and nuclear physics (exotic nuclei). These techniques are still used at ISOLDE today.

Robert served as Director of Research at CERN from 1981 to 1987, a period in which the research programme at the SPS proton-antiproton collider was in full swing. The crowning glory of this programme was the discovery of the intermediate W and Z bosons in 1983 and the award of the Nobel prize for physics to Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer the following year. During his mandate, Robert gave the study of antimatter a decisive boost with the construction of the LEAR antiproton ring. He also launched the relativistic heavy-ion collision programme that led to the discovery of a new state of matter at high temperatures, the quark-gluon plasma.

After returning to France, Robert participated in the group led by Carlo Rubbia that was carrying out research into an innovative approach to the production of nuclear energy and the processing of nuclear waste through transmutation. More recently, he lent his support to initiatives on the transport of electrical energy by superconducting cables.

In 2004, Robert launched the “Sharing Knowledge” series of conferences, which bring together numerous scientific experts from around the Mediterranean. These conferences, the last of which took place in 2019, covered many subjects, from the digital divide to satisfying humankind’s basic needs (water, energy, food). They were always a resounding success. To ensure the lasting impact of these conferences, in 2006 Robert created the “Sharing Knowledge Foundation”, which he directed for 15 years, working to encourage sustainable development in countries around the Mediterranean and in Africa by transferring and developing scientific knowledge. Thanks to the efforts of the Foundation, and of Robert himself, students from Morocco and Palestine were able to participate in CERN’s technical and doctoral student programmes. These students are now assistant professors back in their own countries and are ideal ambassadors for CERN’s culture of international collaboration. In addition, with a view to creating a friendly space for discussions at SESAME, the international centre for synchrotron-light experimentation in the Middle East, Robert convinced the Foundation to finance a cafeteria there!

As well as being an exceptional man of science, Robert knew how to enjoy life. He was fond of a good celebration, and a fan of fine food and wine, in particular Burgundy wine, of which he was a great connoisseur. Many of us had the pleasure of tasting some with him during animated discussions on science, politics or society in general. Robert was a generous man and his door was always wide open. He was also an expert in many cultural domains: literature, art, theatre and cinema.

The best way to pay tribute to him is to continue to promote his ideals of humanism and solidarity.

His friends and colleagues at CERN and CNRS