Lorentz, the Solvay Councils and the Physics Institute
Institute Lorentz for theoretical physics, Leiden University, The Netherlands
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Received: 10 June 2015
Revised: 10 July 2015
Published online: 10 September 2015
This paper describes the crucial role which Lorentz played in shaping and continuing the Solvay Councils and the Physics Institute. At the same time it will become clear that Lorentz* intensive involvement in these activities added significantly to his influence on, and recognition in, the international physics community.
The first Solvay Council in 1911 was an initiative of the German physical chemist Walther Nernst. It was generously supported by the wealthy industrialist and philantropist Ernest Solvay. About five months before the Council*s start Nernst invited Lorentz to chair the meeting. That was no simple task in view of the fundamental problem of the quanta and the practical problem of communication in different languages. Lorentz*s way of presiding the conference impressed all participants.
When, after the meeting, Solvay was willing to support research in the field, it was only natural to ask Lorentz for a plan. Within two months Lorentz provided Solvay with a draft which would serve as an outline for the statutes of an institute. The international Solvay Institute of Physics was founded on 1 May 1912. It would support research proposals in a specified field and would regularly organize Councils. An international scientific committee would decide on grants which could be requested from everywhere. Between the Institute*s beginnings and the outbreak of WWI, 97 requests were considered and 40 proposals – originating from 7 countries – were accepted.
A second Council took place in 1913. Lorentz was given the possibility to spend considerable time on chairing the scientific committee when in 1912 his full time professorship in Leiden was changed into a part-time one.
During WWI Lorentz maintained contacts with Solvay and with several of his foreign colleagues in the countries at war. He tried to remain objective, impartial and helpful, and did not lose hope that pre-war international scientific relations would eventually be re-established. After the war he had to accept the Allied exclusion of the scientists of the Central Powers, but considered this a temporary necessity which should be lifted as soon as possible. He therefore advocated the continuation of the Solvay Physics Institute. At the time, this idea was far from obvious, but it was endorsed by Solvay.
After two Councils without participants from the Central Powers the administrative committee decided in 1926 to lift this exclusion for the fifth Council, and to accept the idea of inviting Einstein to become a member of the scientific committee. This happened after a visit of Lorentz to King Albert in order to explain the intentions of the committee. Thus, the way was paved for a truly international Council in 1927.
© EDP Sciences, Springer-Verlag, 2015