Rutherford, the Cavendish Laboratory and the Solvay Councils

  • Jeff Hughes
Part of the Science Networks · Historical Studies book series (SNHS, volume 22)


The Solvay Councils have played a key role in the development of the institutional and intellectual geography of physics in the twentieth century. With other institutions, such as the Nobel Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation, they played a decisive role in determining the scientific and professional values of physics in the early decades of the century. The Solvay Councils were central in establishing a new kind of physics and a new way of doing physics by defining key problems and shared concerns among an élite, self-selecting international group of physicists. To these men and women, with different backgrounds, and often different ways of thinking about nature, the Solvay Councils allowed discussion of some of the most pressing problems of the new physics which gradually unfolded in the first half of the century, and in so doing helped shape the discipline of physics as we have come to know it. Just a cursory glance at the list of topics discussed shows the close connection between the Councils and the leading edge of physics research: 1911, quanta; 1913, the structure of matter; 1921, the electron theory of matter and atomic structure again; 1924, problems of metallic conduction; 1927, electrons and photons, including the new quantum mechanics and its interpretation; 1930, magnetic properties of matter, including the application of quantum mechanics to magnetic phenomena; 1933, the structure and properties of atomic nuclei, including the then recent discoveries of the neutron, the deuteron, the positron and the artificial disintegration of the atom, all leading to the development of the new field of nuclear physics.1


Nobel Prize Atomic Model Modern Physic Rockefeller Foundation Nuclear Model 
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  1. 1.
    For an overview of the Solvay Congresses in Physics, see J. MEHRA, The Solvay Conferences on Physics: Aspects of the Development of Physics since 1911,D. Reidel, Dordrecht and Boston, 1975. See also P. MARAGE and G. WALLENBORN, Les Conseils Solvay et les Débuts de la Physique Moderne,Brussels, 1995; D.K. BARKAN, The Witches’ Sabbath: The First International Solvay Congress in Physics, Science in Context 6 (1993), pp. 59–82; R.H. STUEWER, The Seventh Solvay Congress: Nuclear Physics at the Crossroads, in A.J. Kox and D.M. Siegel (eds.), No Truth Except in the Details,Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1995, pp. 333–362.Google Scholar
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    See n.7. In his comments to Bertram Boltwood, Rutherford emphasised only his informal discussions with Marie Curie concerning the radium standard they were then working to develop. See Rutherford to Boltwood, 20 November 1911, in L. BADASH (ed.), Rutherford and Boltwood. Letters on Radioactivity,Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1969, pp. 257–259. Clearly, the meeting served many purposes.Google Scholar
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    Lorentz to Rutherford, 29 January 1924, Rutherford papers; Rutherford to Lorentz, 3 February 1924, Lorentz papers. In the event, neither Darwin nor Fowler was invited, the British delegates being W. H. Bragg, F.A. Lindemann, O.W. Richardson, W. Rosenhain and Rutherford himself.Google Scholar
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    R.H. STUEWER, Nuclear Physics at the Crossroads.Google Scholar

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  • Jeff Hughes

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