Jean-Michel Mataigne: when logic meets intuition

Photography : Camille Noyon - Text : Julien Damon
Jean-Michel Mataigne BAT

An engineer in applied physics, educated at the prestigious university of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium where, he says, « you have fun as much as you learn », Jean-Michel Mataigne works as a researcher at Arcelor Mittal. His research aims at studying the physical and chemical properties of materials, and especially improving galvanization processes, a technique for covering steel with zinc in order to prevent corrosion.

In his second life however, he is a chess player, and even the president of Senlis’ chess club, a group of thirty-five players who meet up each week to train and go head-to-head in friendly tournaments. Jean-Michel Mataigne finds a lot of beauty in this game. « A successful combination is always something beautiful. » To win the game is important, true, but the way you do it counts for a lot.

The game of chess is a mix of mathematical rigour and artistic intuition. « Practicing chess is as fulfilling as playing music or painting. » There even exists books entirely dedicated to preserving the memory of games played by the greatest masters, juste like scores of music or archives of preparatory drawings shedding light on the creative process of the most eminent artists.

Rigour arises from the self-imposed discipline of training again and again, nowadays often against computers which don’t allow any error. Intuition is this hardly definable flair thanks to which a player senses when a game is about to tip over, when a winning combination is hiding in the position of pieces on the chessboard.

Jean-Michel Mataigne likes to take part in competitions. There was a time when his professional schedule gave him more freedom, when he was able to train for one to two hours a day : he then managed to play at a chessmaster’s level but was not able to maintain the performance long enough to qualify for the title. Today, he says, he better understands the game than at the time but it is difficult for him to sustain the intense concentration effort which is required when you play in a competition, five to six hours of uninterrupted attention.

Anyhow, he still plays with pleasure, sometimes in teams in order to liven up the club’s collective spirit. He also likes to watch games played by champions and to memorise the series of moves which he then plays back in his mind in his spare time. « You don’t need a chess board and pieces to play, nor even an opponent or a computer. You can play and replay games mentally, remembering the moves, the moments, the strategies. »

Whatever the contribution of memory and training, each game you play is new, each position to consider with a fresh eye. This is where the chess player’s know-how joins the researcher’s thought processes : using acquired knowledge to analyse the problems to be solved, but also giving free rein to your imagination to find new ideas. When he conducts research on galvanization, Jean-Michel Mataigne tries to model the flow of zinc, deposited as a liquid on the steel’s solid surface : in order to design processes which allow better control of that flow, he sometimes needs to escape to other domains, getting inspiration from analogies like how a drop of wine flows down the inner surface of a glass, or how the water surface curves under an insect’s steps.

His work as a researcher is what brought Jean-Michel Mataigne to Senlis, following an assignment on the industrial site of the company Sollac, which in the meantime has become Arcelor Mittal, in Montataire. He still lives there, even though his laboratory has been moved to Metz, in the Eastern part of France, managing the distance by many trips back-and-forth and occasionnally working from home. Why ? « Because it’s so beautiful here ! » And whenever his family, partly Belgian, partly Australian, visits from abroad, he keeps taking them proudly through the city, its paved streets, its churches and its historical buildings.

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