Aiguillette des Houches © Shutterstock
Aiguillette des Houches © Shutterstock
Ecole des Houches : mountain summit physics
Located 1,200m above sea level, deep within the Mont Blanc massif, this international school has been training generations of high-level scientists since 1951, gaining worldwide renown among physicists.
Les Houches School of Physics opened in 1951 at the initiative of Cécile DeWitt-Morette, with the aim of providing the French and international scientific community with a more hands-on approach to learning modern physics.
Over the years, the school has kept pace with scientific developments and attracted the greatest scientists of their day, of whom we could mention Léon Van Hove, Enrico Fermi, Wolfgang Pauli, Murray Gell-Mann and John Bardeen. Several of its young researchers have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, including Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, Georges Charpak and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji.
The school still operates in the same mindset as first intended by Cécile DeWitt-Morette, keeping a tradition of excellence alive while adapting to the changing scientific landscape.

A school to climb to new heights

In the early days, the Ecole des Houches organised a general physical summer school over a two-month period for a select few of the brightest young international scientists who applied. Written entirely by guest researchers, the lectures had to be organised just so, ready for publication in a collection that has now become a classic in its field: the Lecture Notes of the Les Houches Summer School. This tradition is still going strong today (even if the sessions have become more specialised, shorter and regular), enabling this institution to maintain its prestige and continue to stand out in the crowd of much more recent international summer schools with the capacity for accepting many more physicists at any one time. “What’s different about the Ecole des Houches is it gives small groups of participants (no more than 70) the chance to get well and truly to grips with their subject through long thematic sessions. Without the usual worldly distractions, the scientists are able to experience a form of community life that is conducive to interaction and discussion. This provides them with invaluable hindsight – especially at a time when research is becoming increasingly specialised,” explains the head of the Ecole des Houches, François David. He goes on to add: “After a month spent in such a close-knit community setting and a hive of intellectual activity, fully-fledged mini scientific communities form around a particular topic."
Over a fifty-year span, the articles of association and premises of the Ecole des Houches may have changed, but the utterly original, pioneering spirit of the institution is still burning bright. In 1959, the Ecole des Houches became a University Institute while Grenoble University acquired land for building facilities to accommodate its physicists over the long term. In 1977, the Physics Centre was founded: all year round, this puts on shorter, more specialist courses as well as workshops and symposia. Last but not least, since 1988 the Predoctoral School of Physics has been welcoming young European researchers who are finalising their DEA (Master of Advanced Studies) or working on their thesis, through an annual two-week session every September.
The rather spartan conditions of the early years are now just a distant memory, with participants these days benefiting from all mod coms and the technology they need (PCs, Wi-Fi, etc.) across 11 buildings and 5 mazots (small wooden chalets) on a four-hectare site.

Undimmed scientific vitality and prestige

As well as building on what they already know, doctoral students and researchers can also take up new cutting-edge subjects, involving not just physics but also bringing the other sciences into play: maths, biology, chemistry or Earth Sciences. These different topics are taught through four-to-five-week sessions held throughout the year, lectures and workshops. Beyond the educational aspects, such encounters are also ideal for sparking new scientific collaborations.

Next session

The next winter session on “Biology at different scales, an interplay between physics and biology” is scheduled for March 2017.
Participants will learn how a biological question can be broached by taking an integrated approach – from the level of the atom right up to the level of the whole organism. This session will also aim to show how physics can contribute to modelling biological processes.

Various themes will be addressed :
  • cells and morphogenesis,
  • role of membranes at mesoscopic and molecular scales: transport and remodelling processes,
  • concepts and methods of physics applied to biology,
  • state-of-the-art experimental approaches,
  • links between structural and cell biology.
The concepts and methods will be illustrated through two research fields: plant morphogenesis from the gene to the flower, and synaptic morphology and exocytosis.
Published on December 23, 2016
Updated on December 23, 2016