On 18 May , the Unesco World Heritage Committee decided to inscribe the archives of the International Solvay Conferences for Physics and Chemistry as documentary heritage in its Memory of the World Register. The decision recognises the historical significance of the archives to humanity and the importance of preserving them for future generations. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) submitted the application with the support of the Solvay Science Project.

“Every scientist knows two surnames: Nobel and Solvay. Nobel needs no explanation. Solvay refers to the Solvay Conferences for Physics and Chemistry that have been held here in Brussels every three years since 1911,” says VUB rector and physicist Jan Danckaert. “These meetings were the first international scientific conferences, similar to what we would call workshops today. The councils held between 1911 and 1927 established the interpretation of, among other things, quantum mechanics, which was a turning point for physics in the 20th century.”

And that’s not all. The councils were also privileged meeting places for leading figures in the scientific community, who witnessed the birth of the theory of relativity and the emergence of a new chemistry, based on exploring the structure of the atom and chemical bonds. The documents from these historic Solvay Conferences are a reflection of the history of physics and chemistry in the 20th century, and are therefore a unique source for analysing the development of modern physics and chemistry.

Part of the collection that will become part of the Unesco Memory of the World Register are the archives of the International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry (VUB-ULB) from the period 1910-1962, which are kept by ULB. The other part is the archives of Paul Langevin (a section dedicated to the Solvay Conferences) which are kept at ESPCI Paris-PSL. The collection includes manuscripts, printed documents, drawings and postcards, photographs on paper and digital images including photographs signed by participants. Both archives are free to view on the website of the Solvay Science Project and via the digital library of the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres. 

“With the recognition as Unesco World Heritage, VUB and ULB hope to further digitise the archives and learn even more about how those conferences came about. Who was invited, and who wasn’t? What role did the two World Wars play? This is the history not only of science, but also of thought,” says Danckaert.

Joint initiative by VUB and ULB

The application for recognition by Unesco was a joint project by VUB and ULB, with the support of the department of libraries and scientific information at ULB (DBIS ULB), the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles (ESPCI Paris-PSL) and the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL).

Renaud Bardez, head of Archives, Heritage and Special Collections at ULB, led the application process. 

“This recognition by Unesco is the result of a proactive institutional policy to preserve and promote both our heritage and history,” he says. 

Joint coordinator and ULB professor of contemporary history Kenneth Bertrams adds: ​ 

“This is great recognition for our two universities and great recognition for the work carried out by the ULB archives.

Solvay Science Project

The documents from the historic Solvay Conferences for Physics and Chemistry found their way to archives across the world. The International Institutes for Physics and Chemistry (VUB and ULB) – established by Ernest Solvay and managed by VUB, ULB and the Solvay family – collects and stores the documents. In 2018, the Solvay Science Project was established, a collaboration between VUB and ULB. The project is supported by the VUB Fund for Natural Sciences in Society and is managed by the VUB Foundation philanthropy service. One of the goals of the fund was to gain recognition from Unesco for the historical importance of the Solvay Conferences.

Unesco Memory of the World programme

The Memory of the World programme was set up by Unesco in 1992 and aims to protect and share documentary heritage in all its diversity. Its goal is to safeguard collective memory and promote the preservation of archival and library collections around the world.

About the VUB Foundation

The VUB Foundation raises philanthropic funds from businesses, organisations, institutions and individuals, within the framework of the TechTransfer service of the vice-rectorate for Innovation and Valorisation. The VUB Foundation’s policy is based on the belief that every philanthropic gift bring social returns. Every contribution supports education, research, innovation or VUB property. The resulting knowledge and insights flow back to society.