160 years of commitment to science
Ernest Solvay’s science-loving legacy is alive and kicking
From the prestigious conferences initiated in the early 20th century to today’s Solvay Prize, Solvay has always maintained a tradition of encouraging the advancement of scientific research. For the love of science, but also out of a long-standing sense of collaborative intelligence.
Supporting scientists, then and now
This is a tradition that is still going strong: in 2022, the International Solvay Institute for Chemistry celebrated its 100th anniversary. Along with its counterpart for physics, these institutes have been gathering the world’s most brilliant scientific minds in world-renowned conferences since 1911. It was during one of these conferences in the 1950s that the scientific community validated the existence of the double helix structure of DNA, for example. A website was recently created, Solvay Science Project, to make the archives of these conferences available to all, in collaboration with the Université Libre de Bruxelles that conserves them.
As far as supporting present-day scientific research, the Science for the Future Solvay Prize was created in 2013. It’s awarded every two years; the latest went to Katalin Kariko for her work on the biochemical modification of synthetically produced messenger RNA. It bears mentioning that no less than two previous laureates, Carolyn Bertozzi in 2020 and Ben Feringa in 2016, went on to win Nobel Prizes in Chemistry!
As all this demonstrates, few industrial companies have entertained throughout their history such a close relationship with the world of academic science and curiosity-driven research. There is probably a lot to understand in that relationship from the fact that Ernest Solvay, the founder of the company, was above all a science lover.
The love of science, first and foremost
The Solvay adventure began 160 years ago, in 1863, when Ernest Solvay patented the improved process he had come up with for the production of soda ash using salt, ammonia and carbonic acid. Producing soda ash (or sodium carbonate, a key ingredient for manufacturing glass, soap, paper and many other materials) was to become his company’s primary activity and the starting point of its success.
Over the following decades, soda ash made Solvay extremely successful. But even as the head of a booming company, Ernest kept his proximity with the scientific world. He liked to say that his entrepreneurial journey had only one goal: to give him the financial independence to satisfy his passion for scientific research. He wanted to encourage science to constantly move forward regardless of its practical applications. What’s more, he considered all sciences to be worthy of interest, including social sciences, and believed they should be accessible to all.
By the late 19th century, Solvay as a company was renowned for its forward-thinking state of mind. It had implemented an avant-gardist welfare program for its workers and supported academic science in many different ways. Famous for the amount of foundations he created, Ernest Solvay was nicknamed the ‘Belgian Carnegie’. While there was a strong personal dimension due to the founder’s interests – Ernest Solvay entertained personal relationships with many scientists and gave them grants using his own funds – there was also a clear connection with his company.
The world’s most prestigious scientific conferences
As mentioned, in 1911, Solvay organized an international scientific conference at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels: it would go down in history as the first Solvay Conference, inviting the most brilliant scientists in the field of physics to discuss their research.
A precedent was set, and Ernest Solvay decided to perpetuate it by founding the International Solvay Institute for Physics in 1912; the Institute for Chemistry was only founded ten years later, due to World War I, and the two institutes would eventually merge in 1970 to become the “International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry, founded by Ernest Solvay”.
What was so amazing about the 1911 conference? First of all, the guest list itself is enough 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…
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, classical physics and quantum theory, paving a whole new way of looking at physics. “In fact, the first six or seven Solvay conferences all lead to giant steps in the advancement of sciences,” says Nicolas Coupain. Ernest Solvay’s intuition was correct: put the greatest scientific minds of your time in a 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.
As an illustration of this, the 5th conference, in 1927, also made it into history books, as it hosted a famous debate between Albert Einstein and Danish physicist Niels Bohr that lay down the foundations for quantum physics, a theory that has enabled the development of technologies that are vital in our everyday life, such as energy and digital communications.
One last thing about the initial 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, but the doing of one man who sincerely loved science and believed in it. 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.