“The Most Intelligent Photo Ever Taken”: The 1927 Solvay Council Conference, Featuring Einstein, Bohr, Curie, Heisenberg, Schrödinger & More

A curi­ous thing hap­pened at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry and the dawn­ing of the 20th. As Euro­pean and Amer­i­can indus­tries became increas­ing­ly con­fi­dent in their meth­ods of inven­tion and pro­duc­tion, sci­en­tists made dis­cov­ery after dis­cov­ery that shook their under­stand­ing of the phys­i­cal world to the core. “Researchers in the 19th cen­tu­ry had thought they would soon describe all known phys­i­cal process­es using the equa­tions of Isaac New­ton and James Clerk Maxwell,” Adam Mann writes at Wired. But “the new and unex­pect­ed obser­va­tions were destroy­ing this rosy out­look.”

These obser­va­tions includ­ed X‑rays, the pho­to­elec­tric effect, nuclear radi­a­tion and elec­trons; “lead­ing physi­cists, such as Max Planck and Wal­ter Nernst believed cir­cum­stances were dire enough to war­rant an inter­na­tion­al sym­po­sium that could attempt to resolve the sit­u­a­tion.” Those sci­en­tists could not have known that over a cen­tu­ry lat­er, we would still be star­ing at what physi­cist Dominic Wal­li­man calls the “Chasm of Igno­rance” at the edge of quan­tum the­o­ry. But they did ini­ti­ate “the quan­tum rev­o­lu­tion” in the first Solvay Coun­cil, in Brus­sels, named for wealthy chemist and orga­niz­er Ernest Solvay.

“Rever­ber­a­tions from this meet­ing are still felt to this day… though physics may still some­times seem to be in cri­sis” writes Mann (in a 2011 arti­cle just months before the dis­cov­ery of the Hig­gs boson). The inau­gur­al meet­ing kicked off a series of con­fer­ences on physics and chem­istry that have con­tin­ued into the 21st cen­tu­ry. Includ­ed in the pro­ceed­ings were Planck, “often called the father of quan­tum mechan­ics,” Ernest Ruther­ford, who dis­cov­ered the pro­ton, and Heike Kamer­lingh-Onnes, who dis­cov­ered super­con­duc­tiv­i­ty.

Also present were math­e­mati­cian Hen­ri Poin­caré, chemist Marie Curie, and a 32-year-old Albert Ein­stein, the sec­ond youngest mem­ber of the group. Ein­stein described the first Solvay con­fer­ence (1911) in a let­ter to a friend as “the lamen­ta­tions on the ruins of Jerusalem. Noth­ing pos­i­tive came out of it.” The ruined “tem­ple,” in this case, were the the­o­ries of clas­si­cal physics, “which had dom­i­nat­ed sci­en­tif­ic think­ing in the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry.” Ein­stein under­stood the dis­may, but found his col­leagues to be irra­tional­ly stub­born and con­ser­v­a­tive.

Nonethe­less, he wrote, the sci­en­tists gath­ered at the Solvay Coun­cil “prob­a­bly all agree that the so-called quan­tum the­o­ry is, indeed, a help­ful tool but that it is not a the­o­ry in the usu­al sense of the word, at any rate not a the­o­ry that could be devel­oped in a coher­ent form at the present time.” Dur­ing the Fifth Solvay Coun­cil, in 1927, Ein­stein tried to prove that the “Heisen­berg Uncer­tain­ty Prin­ci­ple (and hence quan­tum mechan­ics itself) was just plain wrong,” writes Jonathan Dowl­ing, co-direc­tor of the Horace Hearne Insti­tute for The­o­ret­i­cal Physics.

Physi­cist Niels Bohr respond­ed vig­or­ous­ly. “This debate went on for days,” Dowl­ing writes, “and con­tin­ued on 3 years lat­er at the next con­fer­ence.” At one point, Ein­stein uttered his famous quote, “God does not play dice,” in a “room full of the world’s most notable sci­en­tif­ic minds,” Aman­da Macias writes at Busi­ness Insid­er. Bohr respond­ed, “stop telling God what to do.” That room full of lumi­nar­ies also sat for a por­trait, as they had dur­ing the first Solvay Coun­cil meet­ing. See the assem­bled group at the top and fur­ther up in a col­orized ver­sion in what may be, as one Red­di­tor calls it, “the most intel­li­gent pic­ture ever tak­en.”

The full list of par­tic­i­pants is below:

Front row: Irv­ing Lang­muir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hen­drik Lorentz, Albert Ein­stein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, C.T.R Wil­son, Owen Richard­son.

Mid­dle row: Peter Debye, Mar­tin Knud­sen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hen­drik Antho­ny Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Comp­ton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr.

Back row: Auguste Pic­card, Émile Hen­ri­ot, Paul Ehren­fest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Don­der, Erwin Schrödinger, JE Ver­schaf­felt, Wolf­gang Pauli, Wern­er Heisen­berg, Ralph Fowler, Léon Bril­louin.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Quan­tum Physics Made Rel­a­tive­ly Sim­ple: A Mini Course from Nobel Prize-Win­ning Physi­cist Hans Bethe

The Map of Physics: Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Fields in Physics Fit Togeth­er

Hear Albert Ein­stein Read “The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence” (1941)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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