When John F. Kennedy welcomed a gathering of Nobel Prize winners at the White House in 1962, he said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Setting aside the implications of that statement — that anyone who was in the same room with Jefferson always lowered the collective IQ of the room —Kennedy’s quip may have been true about gatherings at the White House. There was another get-together 35 years earlier on another continent that has been called the smartest meeting on earth.
The Solvay Conferences began in 1911 and are devoted to the discussion and study of major issues in physics and chemistry. Named after the Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay, the conferences have gained renown for attracting the best and the brightest minds in science.
The most famous of the conferences was the fifth gathering from October 24 to 29, 1927. The subject was “Electrons and Protons.” The list of attendees reads like a Who’s Who of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 20th century. Of the 29 attendees, 17 had or would become Nobel Prize winners. One of them, Marie Curie, had the singular distinction of winning a Nobel Prize in two separate scientific disciplines.
The group photo of the participants has been called “the most intelligent picture ever taken.”
Among the attendees were Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Erwin Schrödinger. They would be listed among the top ten greatest physicists of all-time, in a 1999 poll of leading physicists for Physics World magazine.
The purpose of the conference was to discuss the newly-articulated quantum theory. Quantum phenomena are baffling to laypeople, but physicists are frequently befuddled as well. One concept they discussed was wave–particle duality, in which light can act as particles and particles such as electrons interfere like light waves. According to Bohr, a system behaves as a wave or a particle depending on the context, but you cannot predict which it will do. Heisenberg added to this with his “Uncertainty Principle,” stating that it is possible to describe the position of an atomic particle or its momentum, but not both at the same time. Einstein, disenchanted with all this uncertainty, famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Bohr answered, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.”
The full list of attendees and some of their accomplishments include:
- Auguste Piccard designed ships to explore the upper stratosphere and the deep seas (bathyscaphe, 1948).
- Emile Henriot detected the natural radioactivity of potassium and rubidium. He made ultracentrifuges possible and pioneered the electron microscope.
- Paul Ehrenfest remarked (in 1909) that Special Relativity makes the rim of a spinning disk shrink but not its diameter. This contradiction with Euclidean geometry inspired Einstein’s General Relativity. Ehrenfest was a great teacher and a pioneer of quantum theory.
- Edouard Herzen is one of only 7 people who participated in the two Solvay conferences of 1911 and 1927. He played a leading role in the development of physics and chemistry during the twentieth century.
- Théophile de Donder defined chemical affinity in terms of the change in the free enthalpy. He founded the thermodynamics of irreversible processes, which led his student Ilya Prigogine (1917-2006) to a Nobel prize.
- Erwin Schrödinger matched observed quantum behavior with the properties of a continuous nonrelativistic wave obeying the Schrödinger Equation. In 1935, he challenged the Copenhagen Interpretation, with the famous tale of Schrödinger’s cat. He shared the Nobel prize with Dirac.
- Jules Emile Verschaffelt, the Flemish physicist, got his doctorate under Kamerlingh Onnes in 1899. This well-reasoned article hypothesizes that Verschaffelt was the “dumbest” person at the conference.
- Wolfgang Pauli formulated the exclusion principle which explains the entire table of elements. He had a reputation for causing destruction by his mere presence, leading many of his colleagues to ban him from their laboratories. He is, coincidentally, the only person in the group photo who is looking away from the camera.
- Werner Heisenberg replaced Bohr’s semi-classical orbits with a new quantum logic which became known as matrix mechanics (with the help of Born and Jordan). The relevant noncommutativity entails Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
- Sir Ralph Howard Fowler supervised 15 FRS and 3 Nobel laureates. In 1923, he introduced Dirac to quantum theory.
- Léon Nicolas Brillouin practically invented solid state physics (Brillouin zones) and helped develop the technology that became the computers we use today.
- Peter Debye pioneered the use of dipole moments for asymmetrical molecules and extended Einstein’s theory of specific heat to low temperatures by including low-energy phonons.
- Martin Knudsen revived Maxwell’s kinetic theory of gases, especially at low pressure: Knudsen flow, Knudsen number, etc.
- William Lawrence Bragg was awarded the Nobel prize for physics jointly with his father Sir William Henry Bragg for their work on the analysis of the structure of crystals using X-ray diffraction.
- Hendrik Kramers was the first foreign scholar to seek out Niels Bohr. He became his assistant and helped develop what became known as Bohr’s Institute, where he worked on dispersion theory.
- Paul Dirac came up with the formalism on which quantum mechanics is now based. In 1928, he discovered a relativistic wave function for the electron which predicted the existence of antimatter, before it was actually observed.
- Arthur Holly Compton figured that X-rays collide with electrons as if they were relativistic particles, so their frequency shifts according to the angle of deflection (Compton scattering).
- Louis de Broglie discovered that any particle has wavelike properties, with a wavelength inversely proportional to its momentum (this helps justify Schrödinger’s equation).
- Max Born’s probabilistic interpretation of Schrödinger’s wave function ended determinism in physics but provided a firm ground for quantum theory.
- Irving Langmuir was an American chemist and physicist. His most noted publication was the famous 1919 article “The Arrangement of Electrons in Atoms and Molecules”.
- Max Planck originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. He proposed that exchanges of energy only occur in discrete lumps, which he dubbed quanta.
- Niels Bohr started the quantum revolution with a model where the orbital angular momentum of an electron only has discrete values. He spearheaded the Copenhagen Interpretation which holds that quantum phenomena are inherently probabilistic.
- Marie Curie was the first woman to earn a Nobel prize and the first person to earn two. In 1898, she isolated two new elements (polonium and radium) by tracking their ionizing radiation, using the electrometer of Jacques and Pierre Curie.
- Hendrik Lorentz discovered and gave a theoretical explanation of the Zeeman effect. He also derived the transformation equations subsequently used by Albert Einstein to describe space and time.
- Albert Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics). He is best known in popular culture for his mass-energy equivalence formula (which has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”). He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.
- Paul Langevin developed Langevin dynamics and the Langevin equation. He had a love affair with Marie Curie.
- Charles-Eugène Guye was a professor of Physics at the University of Geneva. For Guye, any phenomenon could only exist at certain observation scales.
- Charles Thomson Rees Wilson reproduced cloud formation in a box. Ultimately, in 1911, supersaturated dust-free ion-free air was seen to condense along the tracks of ionizing particles. The Wilson cloud chamber detector was born.
- Sir Owen Willans Richardson won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1928 for his work on thermionic emission, which led to Richardson’s Law.