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Unveiling the secrets of heritage artworks by letting their atoms speak.

When: Tuesday, March 12th, 1:30 PM

Where: Godechot Auditorium, ENSCM, Montpellier

Speaker: Didier Gourier (Professor Emeritus at Chimie-ParisTech-PSL and Honorary Professor at the Institut Universitaire de France)

Ancient artworks and archaeological objects often exhibit a chemical and physical complexity that conceals much of the mystery surrounding their history. Questions such as the methods of their manufacture, the origin of their constituent materials, their degradation processes, and the presence of chemical anomalies that might suggest forgery, among others, remain unanswered. A detailed analysis of their chemical composition and the atoms trapped in trace amounts can provide insights into these questions. However, heritage objects face a constraint – they are generally very precious, even unique, necessitating the exploration of their atoms in a non-invasive manner without causing damage. Such "non-touch" analyses can be conducted by probing the different electron layers of atoms using radiation (photons, charged particles, etc.) and spatially mapping the emitted radiation in response to this excitation.

In this regard, the Grand Louvre Elemental Analysis Accelerator (AGLAÉ) is the only major instrument that combines both a strategically located position in a museum environment and a dedicated application for the analysis of heritage objects. High-speed nuclear particles (protons, deuterons, or helions) are projected onto the objects to be analyzed and are slowed down by the matter, which, in turn, emits various types of radiation (X-rays and gamma rays, visible light, nuclear particles) that can be mapped. This process delivers messages that help unveil some secrets of heritage objects.

This atomic-scale exploration will be illustrated using examples of analyses of Renaissance paintings and ancient objects.

High-energy beamline of the AGLAE accelerator

© Christophe Hargoues / C2RMF / CNRS Photo Library

Proton beam analysis of a statuette from the Gallo-Roman treasure of Bavay (3rd century AD)

© Christophe Hargoues / C2RMF / CNRS Photo Library


Didier Gourier is a Professor Emeritus at Chimie-ParisTech-PSL and an Honorary Professor at the Institut Universitaire de France. After earning his Ph.D. in materials science from Pierre and Marie Curie University, he worked as an engineer at CGE (now Alcatel) from 1979 to 1981 and then continued his career as a teacher-researcher from 1982.

His research focuses on the physico-chemistry of materials for various applications, such as sodium and lithium batteries, materials for ionizing radiation detection, or nanomaterials for non-invasive medical optical imaging. From the 2000s, he also became interested in the organic matter of the primitive solar system in connection with the origin of life. In 2014, he established a joint research team between Chimie-ParisTech and the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (C2RMF) and was in charge of the project for the new particle accelerator at the Louvre (AGLAE).

He has authored 194 publications in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and holds six patents.

Throughout his career, he held various responsibilities, including the directorship of UMR7574-CNRS (2001-2004), FR3443-CNRS (2012-2015), and FR3506-CNRS (2015-2021). He served as the scientific director of Chimie-ParisTech from 1993 to 2006. At the national level, he was an advisor to the Research Directorate of the Ministry of Research from 1998 to 2003 and a member of the CNRS Strategy Mission from 2006 to 2009.

He was a member of the CNRS Ethics Committee from 2012 to 2021.

Didier Gourier is a Commander of the Order of Academic Palms.

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