Tracing good and bad ideas

Today I decided to look for the original Solvay Conference papers, which were digitized by the libraries of the Free University of Brussels: here is the link to them.  I quickly went through the famous 1927 and 1930 Conferences (Einstein did not attend the 1933 Conference – nor did he attend the 1921 Conference) – but, to my great consternation – there is no trace of those so-called ‘heated discussions’ between Heisenberg and Einstein.

A few critical questions here and there, yes, but I don’t see anything even vaguely resembling an ‘ardent debate’ or a so-called ‘Bohr-Einstein controversy’. Am I mistaken—or am I missing something?

The fact that it’s all in French is quite interesting, and may explain why Einstein’s interventions are rare (I am not sure of the language that was used: the physicists then were multi-lingual, weren’t they?). The remarks of the French physicists Leon Brillouin, for example, are quite interesting but not widely known, it seems.

Funny remarks like Heisenberg telling Einstein ‘to stop telling God what to do’ are surely not there ! Are they folklore? Would anyone know whether these remarks are documented somewhere? I am just trying to trace those historical moments in the evolution of thought and science… 🙂

Things like this make me think a great deal of the ‘controversy’ between old (classical) and new (quantum) physics is actually just hype rather than reality. One of my readers sent me this link to a very interesting article in the LA Times in this regard. It’s a quick but very worthwhile read, showing it’s not only physics who suffers from ‘the need to sell’ real or non-existing results: here is the link—have a look!

In fact, I realize I am still looking for some kind of purpose for my new site. Perhaps I should dedicate it to research like this—separating fact from fiction in the history of ideas?

PS: I just checked the Wikipedia article on Heisenberg’s quotes and it seems Heisenberg’s “stop telling God what to do” is, effectively, disputed ! Interesting but, in light of its frequent use – also quite shocking, I would think.

PS 2: I jotted down the following based on a very quick scan of these Solvay Conferences:

Dr. Oliver Consa starts his scathing history of the sorry state of modern-day physics as follows:

“After the end of World War II, American physicists organized a series of three transcendent conferences for the development of modern physics: Shelter Island (1947), Pocono (1948) and Oldstone (1949). These conferences were intended to be a continuation of the mythical Solvay conferences. But, after World War II, the world had changed. The launch of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), followed by the immediate surrender of Japan, made the Manhattan Project scientists true war heroes. Physicists were no longer a group of harmless intellectuals; they had become the powerful holders of the secrets of the atomic bomb.”[1]

Secrets that could not be kept, of course. The gatekeepers did their best, however. Julius Robert Oppenheimer was, effectively, one of them. The history of Oppenheimer – father of the atomic bomb and prominent pacifist at the same time – is well known.

It is actually quite interesting to note that the Solvay Conferences continued after WW II and that Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer pretty much dominated the very first post-WW II Solvay Conference, which was held in 1948. Bohr does so by providing the introductory lecture ‘On the Notions of Causality and Complementarity[2], while Oppenheimer’s ‘Electron Theory’ sets the tone for subsequent Solvay Conferences—most notably the one that would consecrate quantum field theory (QFT), which was held 13 years later (1961).[3]

Significantly, Paul Dirac is pretty much the only one asking Oppenheimer critical questions. As for Albert Einstein, I find it rather strange that – despite him being a member of the scientific committee[4] – he actually hardly interferes in discussions. It makes me think he had actually lost interest in the development of quantum theory.

Even more significant is the fact that Dirac was not invited nor even mentioned in the 1951 Solvay Conference.

[1] Oliver Consa, Something is rotten in the state of QED, February 2020.

[2] See the 1948 Solvay Conference report on the ULB’s digital archives.

[3] Institut international de physique Solvay (1962). La théorie quantique des champs: douzième Conseil de physique, tenu à l’Université libre de Bruxelles du 9 au 14 octobre 1961.

[4] Einstein was a member of the Solvay scientific committee from the very first conference (1911) – representing, in typical style, a country (Austria, not Germany) rather than an institution or just being a member in some personal capacity – till 1948. He was not a member of the 1951 scientific committee. The reason might well be age or a lack of interest, of course: Einstein was 72 years in 1951, and would die four years later (1955).


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