Is that what triggered the idea of what was about to become the most important scientific event in the world? Whatever the case may be, in 1911 Solvay organized an international scientific conference at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels which would go down in history as the first Solvay Conference, inviting the most brilliant scientists in the field of physics to gather and discuss their research. Walther Nernst and Max Planck (1858-1947), the well-known German theoretical physicists, were its main organizers, and Hendrik Lorentz, a Dutch physicist who had won the Nobel Prize in 1902, its chairman.
The impact of this conference was tremendous. A precedent was set, and Ernest Solvay quickly decided to perpetuate it by founding the International Solvay Institute for Physics in 1912. In fact, it was also rapidly decided that these conferences should not stop at physics alone, and the International Solvay Institute for Chemistry was created the following year in order to organize the same type of conferences for chemistry – the two institutes would eventually merge in 1970 to become the “International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry, founded by Ernest Solvay”.
So what was so amazing about what Ernest Solvay and his scientist friends had managed to create with that first conference in 1911? First of all, the guest list itself, certainly already impressive at the time, has been continuing to strike the mind of anyone even remotely interested in science for the past century, going down in history as probably the most amazing gathering of world famous scientists of all time. One can just imagine the level of the debates between Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Henri Poincaré, Martin Knudsen, Paul Langevin, Max Planck, Walther Nernst and Hendrik Lorentz, all gathered in the same room talking about cutting edge physics… For the anecdote, Albert Einstein, 32, was the second youngest physicist present – the youngest one was Frederick Lindemann, a British physicist who would go on to become an advisor to Winston Churchill in the 1950s.
The second remarkable thing about the first Solvay Conference was the scientific breakthrough it enabled. Its subject was “Radiation and the Quanta”, and it looked at the problems of having two approaches, namely classical physics and quantum theory, paving a whole new way of looking at physics, which, as we know today, would develop rapidly in the course of the following years. “In fact, the six or seven first Solvay conferences all lead to giant steps in the advancement of sciences”, says Nicolas Coupain. This means Ernest Solvay’s intuition was correct: put the greatest scientific minds of your time in the same room, and new ideas are bound to emerge that will lead to more advanced science down the road. It’s that simple, and it works.
The 5th conference, in 1927, is another one that made it into history books, as it hosted a famous debate between Albert Einstein and Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) that set the foundations for quantum physics, a theory that has enabled the development of technologies we consider vital in our everyday life, such as energy and digital communications.
Finally, one more thing about the first Solvay Conferences bears to be underlined: they were entirely sponsored by Ernest Solvay, using his own money. This wasn’t some sort of corporate-sponsored event put together to give the company a smart image, it was the doing of one man who loved science and sincerely believed in it. True to this belief, he granted total freedom of action to the invited scientists, and an independent scientific committee was created to establish the agenda of the conferences and the guest list for each one. The mission of the Solvay Institutes was to “support and develop curiosity-driven research in physics, chemistry and allied fields, with the purpose of enlarging and deepening the understanding of natural phenomena”, as its credo still states today. A mission that will be upheld despite the vicissitudes of the 20th century, as we will see…