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Posted by on Oct 17, 2011 in Some reminiscences | 5 comments

Am I the one who found the famous Solvay 1927 conference photo?

most famous physics photograph showing the conference held in Brussels in 1927 and chaired by Hendrik Lorentz

From top R to L; A. Piccard, E. Henriot, P. Ehrenfest, E. Herzen, Th. De Donder, E. Schrödinger, J.E. Verschaffelt, W. Pauli, W. Heisenberg, R.H. Fowler, L. Brillouin; P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr; I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch. E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson

This is, perhaps, the most famous physics photograph showing the conference held in Brussels in 1927 and chaired by Hendrik Lorentz.  The theme of the conference was photons and electrons, and the delegates struggled to understand the meaning of the new quantum mechanics.

Here I will describe how I obtained that photograph and will make a guess that maybe it was through my discovery that this picture came to light.  I might be wrong about this and I invite people to correct my story and help with details but I found this photo almost forty years ago in a dusty corner.

My post-doc years were spent as a resident theoretician at the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory in Leiden, Holland.  I worked in the molecular physics group of Professor Jan Beenakker.  He had a large team and we studied the effects of electric and magnetic fields on the transport properties of gases.  (You could actually see quantum effects in the viscosity and thermal conductivity in the gas phase.)

Disaster In Leiden 180 (see chair in tree)

Disaster In Leiden 180 (see chair in tree)

During the Napoleonic wars in 1807 a barge laden with gunpowder exploded in a canal near the center of the town.  Five hundred people died and the explosion was heard as far away as Harlem.  About a hundred years later, the Kamerligh Onnes laboratory was built on this site over the rubble of the destroyed buildings.  The scientist, Kamerligh Onnes, was the first person to liquefy helium, and he went on to discover super-fluidity and super-conductivity.

The deepest part of the lab resembles a catacomb and I was told that in WW II, a couple of Jewish scientists hid there.  In 1974, towards the end of my 2 years as post doc, I started to poke around and learn more about the lab’s history.  In the Erenfest Reading room (a place where no books can be taken out because Erenfest said that he did not want the journals to end up in the offices of Profs, and unavailable to students),  I found articles by famous physicists.  I recall being particularly enthralled by the hand written thesis of Henri Poincarrié  just sitting in the stacks.  In those dark and dusty areas of the lowest level, there were boxes and crates that likely held treasures from the past research.  However the best find for me was in the photographer’s storage area where a pile of glass negatives were stacked in a corner, some broken, but many intact. All were large so prints were made by direct contact.

Kamerlingh Onnes

Kamerlingh Onnes (left)

In that pile, I found the original glass negative of the 1927 Solvay Conference.  I had never seen the picture before and it was an exciting moment as I looked at my find, and started to recognize individuals.  I talked to the current photographer, whose name I have now forgotten, and he kindly made prints of several of those negatives, including the Solvay conference. It came as a surprise when he told me that the person who took the Solvay Conference photograph was his grandfather.

Now I do not know what happened after that, but I know he made several copies at the time he made mine, and likely he  just gave them away, and so, perhaps, the photo spread.

At least I like to think that it was my rummaging around that led to that photograph being discovered.

If anyone knows more, can debunk my theory; know the name of the photographer; or any other details about the origin of the picture, I would be very interested to hear from you.





  1. I did write to my physics colleague and he did some digging but could not come up with the name of the person who took the picture. I got the following information”

    “I talked also to Tegelaar (Wim, I think, initials: W.F.) who was the graphic arts fellow here. He did have a father who was a photographer. But he did not have specific information on this picture.”

    But it is not so much the photographer but rather the person who made the contact prints of the photo for me that could know.

  2. Such a nice story Bryan!

    Great pic!

    Cheers from Brazil !

  3. It is very interesting.

    In fact I realized that there are at least two pictures on Internet, with slight differences in between them. These seem to be spaced by some seconds, perhaps the time to exchange plates to take two photos.

    It is easy that one of these pictures could came from the plate you discovered.

    The photography is often credited to Benjamin Couprie.

    Alberto Marino

  4. This is good story. I had a copy of that photo on the inside of my office door for many years! At the risk of a boorish analogy I was awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship at Princeton in 1963 and had to do some minimal duties to justify my support which consisted of forming a list of all vacuum tubes used in instruments in the Chemistry Department so as to stock replacements. (Remember vacuum tubes?) Several faculty researchers disapproved of my need to look at often dusty high voltage electronic chassis to get tube numbers but eventually I worked my way down to the basement of Frick Laboratory (no longer the Chemistry Building) where to my amazement I found box after box of pristine reprints of early J.Chem. Phys. articles by Henry Eyring and his colleagues! Apparently these reprints in the beautiful JCP blue covers were left behind when Prof. Eyring was wooed to move to the University of Utah. In the interest of (my) education I helped myself to a copy of each especially related to the one-electron theory of optical activity. However the most interesting paper described how Prof. Eyring purchased several gallons of electrolysis water from an electroplating shop in nearby New Brunswick. Prof. Eyring then continued electrolysis of gallons of that water down to about 100 ml and estimated D2O content of about 40%. That was in 1933 so what could one do with this heavy water? Well the experiment was to put a goldfish in the water! Although goldfish are especially hardy to many biological insults it died in the heavy water! Today we realize how many biological reactions are dependent on H-bonding so that disruption would occur due to D substitutions! As with the 1927 Solvay photo there is likely many a historical treasure hidden in basements of Chemistry Buildings!

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