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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 48 - February 2006   
 Concerted voices on strings
 Two months flat on their backs
 The wild card of distributed production
 Action stations for in vitro
 Wolfgang Heckl’s straight talking
 The added value of mobility
 Analysis of a stalled constitution

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Title  A scientific conclave and public meeting

December 2005 saw the 23rd Solvay Council and what has become a traditional gathering of Nobel Prize laureates and Fields Medal holders. The subject of discussion on this occasion was the quantum structure of time and space. The three days of debate for the scientists were followed – as a fitting culmination to the Year of Physics – by a public meeting that gave rise to passionate exchanges between the public who attended in large numbers and the scientists who were eager to communicate.

Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Paul Langevin, Henri Poincaré, Ernest Rutherford…
The Solvay Councils are part of the history of physics. It is enough to look at the participants present, the issues raised and subjects discussed to trace the development of this branch of knowledge. It was the young and audacious Einstein who closed the first Solvay Council, in 1911, by presenting “the current state of the problem of specific heats”. Hendrik Lorentz, 1902 Nobel Prize laureate, helped organise some of these meetings where he played a key role as president, selecting the speakers and chairing the debates. One of them, in 1927, saw a historic confrontation between Einstein (“God does not play dice”) and Niels Bohr (”Albert, stop telling God how he should behave”) on the subject of quantum physics.

In private, at the Métropole
This exchange may be anecdotal, but it is also an example of the atmosphere at these events that invariably produces lively and informal debates and at which academic formality has no place. Casual conversations behind the scenes and intense debate over lunch are all part of the process at these unique scientific meetings held regularly every three years and interrupted only by the two world wars. 

In 2005 – as in 1911 – the venue for the Solvay Council was the historic art deco Métropole Hotel, in the heart of Brussels. The American David Gross (Nobel Prize for physics, 2004) chaired the proceedings. Other Nobel laureates – Murray Gell-Mann, Gerard 't Hooft, Steven Weinberg, Frank Wilczek – were also present, as were winners of the Wolf Prize (Robert Brout, François Englert) and, representing mathematics, two winners of the Fields Medals (Michael Atiyah and Shing-Tung Yau). The world’s leading experts on quantum mechanics and general relativity set about discussing the question with which they have been grappling for years: how to unite the two pillars of contemporary physics within a single theory that would explain the universe in its totality, from the particles to the stars? 

In public, at the Charlemagne
On the Sunday afternoon, a small group of scientists left the Métropole for the Charlemagne, the European Commission building where an audience awaited them. With over 1 000 registered to attend, it was a full house. The first to arrive rushed for a place in the main hall, to witness live the discussions that were relayed by video to other rooms in the building.

Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Paul Langevin, Henri Poincaré, Ernest Rutherford…
Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Paul Langevin, Henri Poincaré and Ernest Rutherford all lined up in 1911 for the first ‘class photo’ of the world’s leading physicists, thanks to an initiative by the exceptional Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay.

Ninety minutes later the first speaker, Robbert Dijkgraaf, took the stage. By drawing on examples of perfect simplicity to explain the most complex advances in physics, he succeeded, in the space of 40 minutes, in overturning our concepts of time and space and revealing that empty space is not empty at all, but warning that the demonstration of all this would not be ready for the following day! Brian Greene, a professor at Columbia University (US), subsequently showed himself to be a powerful speaker as he set about cutting the Gordian knot of string theory by announcing that every particle in nature can be modelled like the vibration of a very small string in a universe possessing space in more than three dimensions. The applause was loud for these two scientists (see interview) who had just upset the world view of a thousand people, not counting the internauts.

It was then time for the debates, with the internet providing an additional source for questions from Europe, the United States and Asia. "Do all black holes explode?" "They start by evaporating," explained Gerard 't Hooft. "Is physics becoming a religion?" "Only a Frenchman can provide a diplomatic response to this question,” answered David Gross, as he referred the question to Thibault Damour. One question in particular – "Is the universe the result of chance or an intelligent project?" – caused hushed silence in the hall, as if a pupil had asked something impertinent. This was not altogether unconnected to the notion of ‘intelligent design’ , a recent train of thought derived from creationism which suggests divine intervention in the creation of the universe. David Gross then explained that, to his mind, the universe is the result of a wonderful equation, and ironically asked the six other scientists if any of them embraced the concept of ID. They looked at one another with amusement and laughter broke out in the hall, as if in a sudden release of tension. No doubt, at the end of the day, everyone left with their heads full of strings and questions and a somewhat changed view of scientists and of the origins of the universe.