The Debate Begins

  • David Wick


The Bohr-Einstein debate, the most interesting intellectual contest in science of this century, began in the late afternoon of October 24, 1927, at the Fifth Solvay Conference in Brussels, Belgium. (Einstein had not attended the meeting in Como a month before, at which Bohr first introduced complementarity.) The theorists Bohr, Born, de Broglie, Brillouin, Dirac, Einstein, Ehrenfest, Heisenberg, Pauli, Planck, and Schrödinger were in attendance, as well as the experimentalists Bragg, Compton, Madame Curie, and Debye. The eminent Dutch theorist H. A. Lorentz, the grandfather of relativity (after whom the theory’s space-time transformations were named), chaired the sessions. The organizers had chosen “Electrons and Photons” as the official title of the conference, but a better one might have been: “Quantum Mechanics: What Does It Mean?” As Einstein’s opinion had become widely known, fireworks were expected.


Official Title Positivistic Complementarity Open Court Publishing Madame Curie Momentum Uncertainty Relation 
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  1. [p. 52]
    Unfortunately, Einstein never wrote a review of the debates with Bohr. When he summarized his epistemological views in 1936 (see “EPR”), he mentioned Bohr only in passing—so inevitably these events are primarily colored by Bohr’s detailed recollections, which appeared in the volume dedicated to Einstein’s 70th birthday in 1949 (Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, P. A. Schupp, ed., reprinted in Wheeler and Zurek). See also Rosenfeld’s memoir in The Fourteenth Solvay Proceedings (1968), from which the quote is taken, and Heisenberg’s (1967). The Fifth Solvay Conference proceedings are in “Electrons et Photons” (Gauthier-Villars, Paris, 1928).Google Scholar
  2. [p. 52]
    Ernst Solvay, a Belgian industrialist, had sponsored a series of international gatherings of prominent scientists. The Fifth Solvay Conference proceedings are in “Electrons et Photons” (Gauthier-Villars, Paris, 1928).Google Scholar
  3. [p.53]
    Einstein’s absorption in quantum problems: letter to Otto Stern, quoted in Pais (1989), p. 9.Google Scholar
  4. [p. 58]
    The other tests Einstein proposed in 1916 involved the magnitude of the deflection of light by the sun, observed three years later by Eddington, and the perihelion precession of the orbit of Mercury by 42 seconds of arc per century, already known to astronomers.Google Scholar
  5. [p. 59]
    “A good joke should not be repeated….”: Frank (1947), p. 216.Google Scholar
  6. [p. 59]
    More comprehensive discussion of the Gedanken experiments, including reactions and criticisms by others, and later developments, can be found in Jammer (1966) and (1974).Google Scholar
  7. [p. 59]
    Einstein’s Nobel recommendation: see Pais (1982), p. 515.Google Scholar

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© Birkhäuser Boston 1995

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  • David Wick

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