The inventor of the “Rencontres”

Jean Trân Thanh Vân is the founding father of the “Rencontres de Moriond”, one of the most widely anticipated annual physics conferences throughout the world. Important results are presented every year. After Moriond, Jean Trân Thanh Vân went on to set up the “Rencontres de Blois”, then the “Rencontres du Vietnam” in the country from which he originates. In 2013 a completely new conference centre will be inaugurated at Quy Nhon (Vietnam). Yet another project launched by Jean Trân Thanh Vân.


Jean Trân Thanh Vân with Georges Charpak (left), 1992 physics Nobel prize, and Norman F. Ramsey (right), 1989 physics Nobel prize (Photo courtesy of Jean Trân Thanh Vân).

We met Jean Trân Thanh Vân at the “Rencontres de Moriond”, 2012. Founded in 1966, this conference has been held only once in Moriond, the former name of Courchevel 1650, a popular skiing resort in France. “While I was writing my doctoral thesis, I felt a strong need to bring experimental and theoretical physicists together for informal exchanges in a relaxing context conducive to creative ideas. During the winter of 1966, some 30 physicist friends met at Moriond, where, after some working sessions, we did some downhill skiing together. In this relaxed and constructive atmosphere we had lots of ideas for collaboration. Over the years other physicists joined us and it was thus that the “Rencontres de Moriond” were born.”

Initially held in mountain chalets where they did the cooking together, then in a hotel at the resort for practical reasons, the “Rencontres” finally ended up at La Thuile in Italy in 2004. “The basic principle behind the “Rencontres” is the concept of intensive work carried out in a relaxed atmosphere. So we tried to link Moriond to the idea of doing sport and Blois to the idea of visiting historic and cultural landmarks”, explains Jean Trân Thanh Vân. The “Rencontres de Moriond” were initially devoted to particle physics but were extended to include biology in 1970, astrophysics in 1981 and then nanophysics in 1994.

The main asset of the “Rencontres” is the mix of theoretical and experimental scientists. This means that immediately after a presentation of the latest experimental results on a topic, you get the possible interpretations from a theorist. “Participants often respond spontaneously to presentations, with the result that important conclusions are presented at Moriond for the first time,” confirms Bolek Pietrzyk, organiser of Moriond QCD, one of the components of the conference which is now broken down into several sessions, such has been its success. “The spirit of Moriond also implies that the presentations be made by young people. Here again the mix is fruitful.”

In 1989, 23 years after the first “Rencontres de Moriond” were held, Jean Trân Thanh Vân decided to mix science with culture and instituted a series of interdisciplinary conferences in the spectacular historic surroundings of the Château de Blois, a jewel of Renaissance architecture. Thus the “Rencontres de Blois” were born.  In 1993 came the “Rencontres du Vietnam”, in hommage to Jean Trân Thanh Vân’s country of birth. Since then Jean Trân Thanh Vân has been working on a project for an international centre for science and education in Vietnam. “The aim of the project is to create a seedbed for scientific and educational development,” explains Jean Trân Thanh Vân. There is a very large population of young people in Vietnam and remarkable economic development. Scientific training and education must remain a priority in the process of development.” 

The centre will have the latest facilities for organising international conferences. The project could be extended to include a planetarium, an hotel and an engineering school. “It will have taken almost 20 years to implement this project but now we're nearly there!” explains Jean Trân Thanh Vân enthusiastically. And if you think that that's the end of the story, you would be wrong: Jean looks like somebody who has just started work. He's already dreaming of other projects and, as he says, “sooner or later you can achieve wonderful things if you believe they can happen.” How old is he?  You can be sure he's still very young.

Click here for more information on the International Centre for Interdisciplinary Science and Education (ICSE)  and its programme of scientific conferences in 2013.

Jean Trân Than Vân was recently awarded the prestigious Tate Medal by the American Institute of Physics.

Official web site of the “Rencontres de Moriond”.

by Antonella Del Rosso