Gathering of Intelligence | Solvay 1927

I taught physics to high school students for my career. Names of important people in the history of physics, chemistry, and other sciences were always included in our textbooks and discussions. These people laid the foundation for what we believe today about how the world works.

In 1927, many of those individuals gathered for the Solvay Conference in Brussels. The colorized photograph below may have captured the most intelligence in one place and time the world has seen. Of the 29 attendees, 17 had won, or would go on to win, the Nobel Prize. Notable in the front row is the only woman at the conference, Marie Curie. She had won two Nobel Prizes in physics and in chemistry.

The primary mission of the conference was to discuss the impact of a new theory embraced by the man at the far right in the second row. The scientist Neils Bohr strongly supported the theory of quantum mechanics. He and Werner Heisenberg argued for what is called the Copenhagen Interpretation. In it, physical systems have a set of probabilities of outcomes if they are going to be measured. The act of measurement causes that set of possible probabilities to reduce to one outcome. Albert Einstein, center front row, did not like the idea of probabilities in nature. He said “God does not play dice”. Bohr replied “Einstein, stop telling God what to do”. Quantum mechanics is widely accepted today and is applied in many aspects of our lives.

The scientific contributions by each of the pictured individuals are described at this link. Scroll part way down that page to find them.


11 thoughts on “Gathering of Intelligence | Solvay 1927

  1. What an amazing photograph. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, many of these folks were my heros. I can remember reading most of their biographies.

  2. Indeed, it’s truly remarkable what these and other scientists have accomplished. This raises a question in my mind; had it not been for individuals like these, how long would it have taken for somebody else to make the same deductions and discoveries? A case can be made, I submit, that it wouldn’t be all that long. Alfred Wallace nearly edged out Darwin. Edwin Hubble sussed out what was becoming rather evident because of advancing telescope technology. Einstein might be an exception, I’m not sure. If not for him, might we still not understand space/time? It’s interesting to speculate, no? Nice post, Jim.

    • Absolutely interesting. More individuals come along each decade. The list grows. I tend to agree with you that it wouldn’t be that long. Open discourse, checking and debating each other, moves ideas along steadily. I like how it works. Thanks for your visit.

  3. Imagine, all those great minds gathered together-! If my college professors had presented topics the way you do, I would have done better. Making it about the people who discovered the theories and laws would have made it more accessible to me. As it was, I did get a degree in science but barely, and without any sense of satisfaction.

      • When I was freshly graduated and living in the Peoria area I was involved with the then new ecological restoration movement. I had volunteered my way into a full time naturalist job….but then my daughter was born with grave health issues that prevented me from taking the job. Many years and a move to Chicagoland later, I’ve found the doors to science firmly closed to me. This frustrated me no end, I can tell you, but I am at peace with it now and happily paint nature in my studio. Probably the path I was supposed to be on all along.

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