OLDEN day wealthy European industrialists often thought of the best ways to put their money to good use for the sake of humanity.

Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay was persuaded by his influential physicist friends to sponsor international conferences for eminent physicists and physics Nobel laureates.

He agreed with the idea and that is how Solvay Conference came into being in 1911. For the uninitiated they may think Solvay is a place in Europe and not the name of a European.

For decades Solvay Conferences enabled prominent physicists to meet in posh hotels in Brussels with all expenses paid for. On top of that, every participant was given substantial pocket money.

The Fifth Solvay Conference, for example, was held for six days in October 1927 at Hotel Metropolis in Brussels.

Jeremy Bernstein in his book Albert Einstein and the Frontiers of Physics reports that the three founding quantum physicists — Max Planck, Albert Einstein and for the first time Neils Bohr — were there as well as the younger workers, including Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger. Hendrik Lorentz (he died the following year) chaired the meeting.

Einstein took the role of a critic. It was indeed the meeting of the minds.

Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel had a different idea of making a name for himself in perpetuity. He founded the Nobel Foundation. The first Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Physiology, Literature and Peace were awarded in 1901.In 1968, Economic Science was included in the list of awards.

In his book Great Inventors And Their Inventions, Gagan Jain gives an interesting account as to why Alfred Nobel established the Prizes.

According to the story, in 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died when in France. A French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary, instead of Ludvig’s and condemned Alfred for his invention of dynamite. They labelled him “the Merchant of Death”.

Provoked by the event and disappointed with how he felt he might be remembered, Nobel set aside a bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prize to honour men and women for outstanding achievements in the preceding year of the award.

The first awards were given in 1901, a fortuitous start to a new millennium!

Almost every year proud recipients converge in Stockholm to receive the awards from the King of Sweden on Dec 10, the anniversary of Alfred’s death.

Jon Butterworth in his book,Smashing Physics – Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment, points out that “For some reason the Nobel Physics Committee doesn’t seem to bother too much about the previous year bit – typically, the prize is awarded many years after the discovery. It also stretches ‘the person’ to mean ‘up to three persons’. But it will not award it to more than three and it will not, unlike the Peace Prize Committee, treat organisations or collaborations as ‘persons’. It also does not award posthumous prizes.”

Koh Aik Khoon
Koh Aik Khoon

*Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitledMusing from the Ivory Tower’.

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