The Fifth Solvay Conference

Participants at the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927.
Participants at the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927.

This iconic photograph taken at the Fifth Solvay Conference shows the greatest gathering of intelligence ever. Physicists met in October 1927 in Brussels to discuss the then-new theory of quantum mechanics. Russ Hobbie and I mention several of the conference participants in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

Niels Bohr (Copenhagen, Denmark). The Bohr model of the hydrogen atom and its energy levels is dealt with in Chapter 14 about Atoms and Light, and Bohr’s work on stopping power-how a charged particle loses energy as it passes through tissue-is discussed in Chapter 15 about the Interaction of Photons and Charged Particles with Matter.

Max Born (Göttingen, Germany). The Born charging energy appears in Chapter 6 about Impulses in Nerve and Muscle Cells.

William Lawrence Bragg (Manchester, England). Chapter 16 about the Medical Uses of X-Rays contains the Bragg-Gray relationship, specifying the absorbed dose in a cavity. The Bragg peak was discovered by Lawrence’s father William Henry Bragg (invited to the conference but could not attend).

Arthur Compton (Chicago, United States). Compton scattering-the dominant mechanism by which x-rays interact with electrons in tissue at energies around 1 MeV-plays a central roll in Chapter 15. Compton’s name is associated with the Compton wavelength and the Compton cross section.

Marie Curie (Paris, France). The curie-a unit of radioactivity equal to 37,000,000,000 decays per second-appears in Chapter 17 about Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Medicine. The Curie temperature, discussed in Chapter 8 on Biomagnetism, is named after Marie Curie’s husband Pierre Curie, who died two decades before the Fifth Solvay conference.

Louis de Broglie (Paris, France). de Broglie and his discovery, the relationship between an electron’s momentum and wavelength, is considered when discussing the electron microscope in Chapter 14.

Peter Debye (Leipzig, Germany). Debye appears in IPMB three times: The debye unit for dipole moment is discussed in Chapter 6, and the Debye length and the Debye-Huckel model are analyzed in Chapter 9 about Electricity and Magnetism at the Cellular Level.

Paul Dirac (Cambridge, England). Dirac is most famous for contributing to quantum mechanics, but he is remembered also for the Dirac delta function, which is developed in Chapter 11 about the Method of Least Squares and Signal Analysis.

Albert Einstein (Berlin, Germany). The Einstein relationship between diffusion and viscosity is studied in Chapter 4 about Transport in an Infinite Medium, and the unit of the einstein-a mole of photons-appears in Chapter 14. Throughout IPMB, we use Einstein’s ideas about the special theory of relativity and the quantum theory of light, although we rarely mention him by name.

Paul Langevin (Paris, France). The Langevin equation is used in Chapter 4 to model the random motion of a particle in a viscous liquid.

Hendrik Lorentz (Haarlem, the Netherlands). The Lorentz force exerted on a charge by electric and magnetic fields is a central concept in Chapter 8.

Wolfgang Pauli (Hamburg, Germany). The Pauli exclusion principle-no two electrons in an atom can have the same values for all their quantum numbers-is introduced in Chapter 14.

Max Planck (Berlin, Germany). The Nernst-Planck equation is introduced in Chapter 9, Planck’s blackbody radiation formula is analyzed in Chapter 14, and Planck’s constant appears throughout IPMB.

Erwin Schrodinger (Zurich, Switzerland). The Schrodinger equation is mentioned in passing at the start of Chapter 3 about Systems of Many Particles.

Watch this fascinating movie taken at the conference:

The greatest physicist of the early 20th century who did not attend the Fifth Solvay Conference was Ernest Rutherford, whose gold foil experiment proved that the atom contains a massive nucleus. Rutherford-who is my academic great-great-great-great-grandfather-was at the Seventh Solvay Conference in 1933 (see photograph below; Rutherford is sitting, sixth form the right), which is probably the second greatest gathering of intelligence ever (Einstein did not attend).

Participants at the Seventh Solvay Conference, 1933.

One little known fact about the Fifth Solvay Conference is that several of the participants brought their copy of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

Originally published at



Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

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Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.