Next Nobel Science Laureate May Be a Bulgarian. Professor Balkanski Will See to It

Perpetual motion would defy the laws of physics, but it is the metaphor that most readily springs to mind when one meets the eminent physicist Minko Balkanski. At 91, he is sprightly, tireless, and in perpetual search of knowledge and ways to help others. He is a fast talker, in all the five languages he speaks. His meeting agenda is usually packed for weeks on end. He recently started taking piano lessons. He is always devising ways to advance his favorite cause—helping bright young Bulgarians reach their potential. And his energy is infectious.

Defying improbability seems to be a recurring theme in the professor’s life. Born in 1927 in the Southeast Bulgarian village of Oryahovitsa, Minko was a bright child and an even brighter adolescent. He finished high school at 15 and was admitted to Sofia University’s chemistry department. While he excelled in his studies in the Bulgarian capital, he had different plans for himself: he dreamed of studying in Paris—in the prestigious École normale supérieure, where his idol, the great French chemist Louis Pasteur, had received his education. His prospects were bleak, though: World War II had put an end to his father’s business, and the communist takeover of the country in 1944 ensured that his chances of getting an exit visa were slim.

Against all odds and after being held for hours at the border, in 1946, young Minko managed to leave Bulgaria. He arrived in Paris with a few words of French and the equivalent of eleven US dollars in his pocket. He worked an assortment of menial jobs to support himself, but he never lost sight of his main goal: getting an education in one of France’s most coveted universities. In three months, he learned enough French to enroll at university, albeit not at his first choice of institution (At the time, only French citizens could study at the École normale supérieure.). A decade later, at 27, he successfully defended a doctorate in physics at the Sorbonne and became a professor of physics a year later. What kept him going were his father’s letters—letters written in beautiful handwriting, infused with love and the wisdom of an ordinary man with an extraordinary vision for his son.

“My father’s letters not only kept me going, but his advice made me the man I am today,” the professor says. The father’s formula for success was simple but effective: work, work, and more work. The son stuck to it to the letter.

For the next four decades, Minko Balkanski worked hard to build a successful academic career spanning several continents, institutions, and languages. Today, he is an international authority on solid state physics and has taught or lectured at 34 universities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, among them MIT, the University of California, and the Sorbonne. Although he never became a student at the École normale, soon after completing his doctorate, he was hired as a researcher in its physics lab. For many years, he also headed the Solid State Physics Lab at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. The professor has coauthored or contributed to the writing of 30 books and 2,000 pages of other scientific publications.

Half a century after he left his home country, in 1992, Professor Balkanski was fully settled into his life as a citizen of the world, and the almost-70-year-old had completely given up on the idea of ever seeing his birth home again. After all, his mother, father, and brother were long dead, and he knew nothing about the myriad relatives he had in Bulgaria. That’s until he got a call from the then Bulgarian ambassador to France, who told him that Sofia University wanted to award him an honorary doctorate. A spur-of-the-moment decision saw him flying to Sofia several weeks later and giving, in faltering Bulgarian, an emotional speech at Sofia University that he had to memorize because of how rusty his mother tongue had become.

He never really left Bulgaria thereafter.

This year, Professor Balkanski and his foundation—named the Minu Balkanski Foundation in memory of his father—are celebrating a quarter century of activity in Bulgaria. Although he still resides in Paris, he is often in Bulgaria to run his many educational and cultural initiatives. In his native village, he converted the family house and several adjoining properties into an educational center featuring a computer lab, a library, and a residence hall. Students from around Bulgaria flock to the center to take classes in French, astronomy, math, civic education, and programming, taught by leading professionals and academics in these fields. That all instructors donate their time and labor to the school attests to the professor’s extraordinary charisma and powers of persuasion. “Because the teachers are really motivated to teach at our school and do it with pleasure, they give their best, which inspires the children,” Professor Balkanski says.

“We do not repeat what the kids learn at school,” the professor adds. “We build on that knowledge and try to stimulate their thirst for knowledge, for science. The kids get out of our schools wanting to learn more. This is our goal.”

And that’s not all. The Minu Balkanski Foundation organizes an annual competition in physics and mathematics for high school students; the six top performers earn scholarships for two years of study at the prestigious secondary school Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where they prepare to apply to France’s top universities. Enlisting the support of foundations in Europe and the United States, Professor Balkanski has helped supply more than 100 Bulgarian schools with state-of-the-art computers because, he says, he wants all of Bulgaria’s children to have access to the opportunities modern technology provides. “I wish that no child is left out,” the professor says.

The Balkanski Foundation supports talented students through their university years as well. In addition to helping deserving Bulgarians attend the best French higher-education institutions, the professor has given generously to the American University in Bulgaria. Together with longtime friend Dimi Panitza, another extraordinary Bulgarian, he helped found the Balkanski-Panitza Institute for Advanced Study in order to foster state-of-the-art research across disciplines by providing an intellectually stimulating environment and resources to both established and early-career scholars.

“I couldn’t do anything better with my life,” the professor says with a smile, then takes his leave to go to his next meeting.


Photo: Magdalena Skorcheva, Bulgarian Donors Forum

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