Solvay Centenary

The first Solvay conference was in 1911 (at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, where I stayed one night of my recent trip to Belgium, without knowing the history), attended by the great men of the early days of quantum theory, and one woman (Marie Curie). For more about the 1911 conference, see this recent paper by Norbert Straumann. Today the 25th Solvay conference got underway in Brussels City Hall, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first conference.

Like the first one, this conference is by invitation only, and it upholds a policy of confidentiality that goes back to 1911, with not even a schedule or list of attendees for the scientific session publicly available that I can see (just the statement that they are “most of the prominent physicists working on the subject). We do however have Lisa Randall reporting on Twitter about the proceedings. Evidently she’s the only woman there [note added: wrong interpretation, Eva Silverstein is also there, but the number of participants has doubled since 1911]:

Seems ratio of x to y chromosomes hasn’t changed in 100 years since first Solvay conference in 1911…

The only other source of info on the internet seems to be this Cal Tech news item, which lists the Solvay chair as David Gross and rapporteurs as:
John Preskill (Quantum Computation)
Anthony Leggett (Quantum Foundations)
Ignacio Cirac and Steven Girvin (Control of Quantum Systems)
Frank Wilczek (Particles and Fields)
Edward Witten (String Theory)
Alan Guth (Cosmology)

The gender distribution may have stayed the same, but it looks like the age distribution is somehat different. Today the average age of the chair and Rapporteurs is about 61, back then it was about 46.

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37 Responses to Solvay Centenary

  1. Kea says:

    How embarrassing. But then, they aren’t embarrassed, are they.

  2. Peter Morgan says:

    Even in that social class, people died younger a century ago.

  3. M says:

    100 years ago Einstein and Curie did not discuss about feminism and string theory.

  4. Johntheman says:

    I found this concluding passage in the Strauumann article interesting:

    “I conclude with personal remarks, that look totally disconnected with what
    was said in this historical account, and may just reflect my advanced age. One
    often hears that the present day situation in fundamental physics (string theory,
    loop gravity) has some similarity with the early years of quantum theory, before
    the great breakthrough – mostly by a young generation – in 1925-26. I find this
    analogy totally wrong. Without the precision experiments by the Berlin group
    (Kurlbaum, Rubens, etc.) and the difficult measurements of the specific heat of
    molecular hydrogen and other diatomic gases at low temperatures, that demonstrated
    the freezing out of the rotational degrees of freedom, as well as the low
    temperature measurements of the specific heat of solids by Nernst, Lindemann
    and others, it is hard to imagine that quantum theory could have been developed.
    This is, of course, not new, but it may not be inappropriate to be recalled in an
    article for this journal.”

  5. anonymous says:

    any conference on the foundations of physics that does not invite Weinberg can’t be taken seriously.

  6. Bernhard says:

    The gender distribution of this conference roughly reflects the actual gender distribution in physics, as far as I know. Then why is the distribution like this is not an easy question but I would not say that is for the lack of initiatives. At least in Sweden they are everywhere, to the blowing point of being unfair with men. Besides Randall which other woman comes to mind that is in the same caliber as Witten? Right now I can’ t think of any. Not to say that would not be nice to have more women in the field, would be very nice and healthy, but the situation as it is, seems to a result of a mixture of things. The most decisive point is a lack of interest of women to go to graduate school, even tough the rate women/men seems to raise drastically from undergratuate to graduate school (because of the many initiatives that are taken, this is a key point in all European Union applications, for example). The rate is still not in a satisfying proportion. It’ s beyond me tough what else could be done to change this situation.

  7. Bernhard says:

    One action that could be taken of course is to try to get more women in the filed at undergraduate level not leave the problem to graduate school, because then one already has too few choices. But this is a complicated task. How to force someone to choose to do physics?

  8. justanotheranon says:

    I agree with the anonymus above- how could they not invite Steven Weinberg (not to say Wilczek is undeserving- but still Weinberg is a living legend- the greatest physicist alive and probably in history – how could you not invite him to such a prestigious conference (well maybe they did but he declined?)
    Any news/dates(!) on his “Lectures on Quantum Mechanics”- really looking forward to this one…

  9. Lisa Randall says:

    I’m not the only woman here. Eva is participating too. But there are more than twice as many participants which is why I mentioned the ratio.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Lisa, correction added.

  11. nitpick: Marie Skłodowska-Curie.

  12. Bernhard says:


    Living people, please.

  13. fem says:

    Weinberg might have been invited and could not attend. In later years, Einstein was invited but was not always able to attend the Solvay conferences.

    “100 years ago Einstein and Curie did not discuss about feminism and string theory.”

    By 1911 Einstein was married to his first wife and embarking (or would soon embark) on an affair with his (eventual) second wife, while Marie Curie was a widow (Pierre died in 1906 in a street accident in Paris) and embarking on an affair with Paul Langevin. Feminism, anyone?

  14. Charles says:

    Two things are likely given the focus and sponsors…the conference invited Weinberg…and they are paying many tributes to Brout (who unfortunately passed early May) and Englert (in attendance) as the primary folks behind the Higgs Field and Boson (excluding PH and GHK).

  15. Peter Woit says:

    I suspect that Lukasz was nitpicking about my not giving Marie Curie’s full name, not your comments about the small number of female physicists. The question of why there are so few women physicists at the top ranks of the profession is a complicated one, and discussion of it a whole other topic.

    In this case, the standard shouldn’t be Witten though, since in many ways there aren’t even any other male theorists in his league.

  16. Bernhard says:

    Hi Peter,

    I agree, and sorry if I went a bit off-topic, surely I know you don’ t want a general debate about women in physics. But going back to the Solvay conference I agree Witten is putting the bar too high, but a fair bar is to ask for a woman in the same level of all the other guests, including Lisa Randall. Perhaps people can can up with one other name, I could not come with one tough.

  17. Paulus says:

    Eva who?

  18. Rapunzel says:

    Kea, why should “they” be embarrassed?

  19. Kea says:

    Rapunzel, unlike the dudes here, who feel entitled to wax lyrical about women in physics, I actually know about the research that proves without any doubt whatsoever that the reason for few women is Discrimination Discrimination Discrimination. Bernhard’s inability to read even one paragraph of this research is a good demonstration of his misogyny. Fact: women leave physics AFTER getting PhDs, and sometimes very good ones, for a number of reasons, but mostly because of Discrimination Discrimination Discrimination.

  20. Peter Woit says:


    Eva Silverstein

  21. anon. says:

    Weinberg’s absence could just be due to limited funds — he never goes anywhere unless whoever invites him pays for a first-class airline ticket. (I can’t say I blame him, as I think he’s earned that sort of thing; but it is very expensive.)

  22. SpearMarktheSecond says:

    I hope they all have a nice time but the chances are slim that anything innovative will result. Laying the groundwork, both theoretical and experimental, for a post-no-Higgs situation might be nice. But hasn’t the trend, like graphene and quasicrystals, been away from the mainstream? Even Dark Energy, although the greats leapt in front of that parade and hypnotized us into neglecting that they totally missed predicting Dark Energy.

  23. Jeff says:

    @spear – hey, didn’t Einstein get “dark enegy?” Of course, he didn’t come up with a clever name for it 🙂 Still remember working out the field equations for GR as an undergrad at Hampshire and getting into the CC discussion with Herb Bernstein.

  24. Edgar Loesel says:

    There are no female physicists giving public lectures or participating on the panel discussion no woman:

  25. Bernhard says:


    Nothing I said justifies what you are implying. I asked a simple question, and perhaps there is an answer to it, but so far nobody, including you, actually gave me good examples of women in the level of Randall to attend this meeting. I suppose there could be such persons, I am just not aware of them. If you however are, please share your knowledge. I am with my mind open and I am glad to recognize I was wrong if you or anybody proves me wrong. But please, do not simply rotulate me as misogyny without actually answering the question seriously. And in any case even if the problem were that I am not aware of them it is not because I have something against them. There could be a not famous other Lisa Randall, but if there is, then is not my fault not knowing her, since the hypothesis is that she is not famous enough for me to know her in the first place.

    As for why women leave physics and when I don ´t think you are right, but in any case this is not the place to discuss it. I am however open to new information and if there is something (“the research”) I missed please send me a link.

    This is my last reply to this, otherwise this will become an annoying debate for Peter to moderate.

  26. Peter Woit says:


    Eva Silverstein immediately came to mind when I started to think of prominent women theorists that could have been invited to Solvay besides Lisa Randall. Turns out she is there though, so not an example of someone passed over or ignored.

    What Kea addresses is kind of a different, not why Solvay is passing over prominent women, but why women don’t rise to prominence. Again, that issue is a complicated one that is kind of off-topic, and I’m not up to moderating a discussion of it here and now.

  27. Bernhard says:

    Thanks Peter, agreed.

  28. lun says:

    I hope Peter allows me to link this talk from his collegue, as it answers comprehensively why the X chromosome ratio moved so little.

  29. jg says:

    The most famous Solvay Conference of all (1927) is analysed in detail in the book

    ‘Quantum Theory at the Crossroads: Reconsidering the 1927 Solvay Conference’
    by Guido Bacciagaluppi, Antony Valentini

    which is available in draft version on arxiv (all 553 pages)

  30. cormac says:

    Looking forward to curling up on the couch and reading that Straumann paper tonight, he’s an excellent historian of physics….wish more physicists would do this. Many thanks for the link Peter

  31. “I suspect that Lukasz was nitpicking about my not giving Marie Curie’s full name”

    Yes, or rather as I’d put it, your not giving her correct name 🙂 (my understanding is that if you stick with what she called herself you should use Marie Skłodowska-Curie, if you prefer the legal state of matters after her marriage with Pierre Curie, it’s probably Maria (not Marie) Curie, unless she changed her name. But this seems to me very unreasonable, see for example Michel Thomas on wikipedia – no one called him anything other than that, presumably because that’s the way he wanted it to be, so why not granting Marie S-C the same luxury?)

  32. Giotis says:

    If Silvertsein was there then why not Kallosh or Becker&Becker for example? If they wanted more females participants they could easily invited them and others.

    But I guess who you know makes a huge difference. If you know Witten I think you have better chances.

  33. Giotis says:

    If you know Witten and Gross even better

  34. anonymous says:

    Most people in high energy physics know Witten and Gross, and most people
    go to plenty of conferences. No doubt there are many men and women who could have been invited, as with any conference.

  35. Kent Traverson says:

    If Madam Curie’s husband was deceased, how could it be said that she was having an affair with anyone?

  36. Eric says:


    The man she was involved with, Paul Langevin, was married at the time.

  37. Umesh says:

    Am sorry, but I have to point out that nobody compares to Edward Witten, male (or) female. Besides, he’s ‘The Martian’!! On a more serious note, it’s not for nothing that he’s said to posses superhuman intelligence, which puts him beyond anyone currently involved in the field. So please stop throwing around comparisons with this great man so freely.

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