Friendship, scandal and quantum theory
effrey Orens’ book, The Soul of Genius, shows how a 1911 meeting in a Brussels hotel brought together the brightest minds in science, shaping the future of physics. But for two brilliant scientists, the meeting sparked a friendship that would shape their lives.
A graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School’s Class of 1973, Orens earned his bachelor’s in chemical engineering at Penn State University and took his first job at Union Carbide in New Jersey. After a stop in California to earn an M.B.A at Pepperdine University, he worked in chemical sales in Texas before returning to New Jersey as a business executive in sales development for Cytec Industries, which is now Solvay. Orens and his wife, Deborah, who teaches high school English literature, live in Fairfield, New Jersey—they have one daughter and a grandchild.
At his first visit to Solvay, Orens came face to face with a wall-size photographic mural in the reception area. The giant image, taken at the Fifth Solvay Conference on Physics in 1927, was a group photo of 17 of the 29 scientists who had either won or were destined to win Nobel Prizes in physics or chemistry. He was rapt, fascinated, absorbing the details.
“Albert Einstein was front and center in the first row,” Orens explained. “Two seats over were Marie Curie, and Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, sitting next to her. The second row had Niels Bohr and Max Born—the quantum mechanics disciples. It was no less than a photograph of the era’s scientific all-stars. It was all too good a story not to capture!”
The First Solvay Conference in Physics took place in 1911, at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels. It was three days of discussion, and a collision between classical Newtonian physics and the upstart quantum physics of Max Planck and Albert Einstein, then 32 years old, which would fundamentally change how we understood physics and the universe. It also marked the first meeting between Einstein and Nobel laureate and physical chemist Marie Curie. She and Einstein forged a friendship of enduring admiration and respect, which would be a support for each other throughout their careers.
The book not only captures science lovers, but also those intrigued with the human drama of scientific discovery, noted Orens. He details the vicious press attacks on Marie Curie for her affair with doctoral student Paul Langevin which almost ruined her career; the lonely brilliance and imperfections of Albert Einstein; backstories on scientific luminaries of the day, and of Ernest Solvay, chemical entrepreneur turned scientific philanthropist who made the conference possible.
Oren’s book has attracted its share of attention by podcasters and interviewers, including Scott Rankin’s podcast History Unplugged, and podcaster and author Chris Voss (see it on YouTube). In October, Orens was a guest of the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Late Night Live radio hour.
In addition to freelance writing, Orens is working on a program to educate Solvay employees on the history of the 160-year-old company, which still sponsors the Solvay Conference on Physics. He is looking ahead to a live webcast of the Solvay Conference later this spring.
Orens is quick to credit his teachers at Mt. Lebanon for their influence on his successful career and abiding love of history and science. For instance, Dr. Charles Beck, in science: “He was a taskmaster. If you didn’t toe the line in his class, you were out of there.” John Canning, in history and Dale Cable, European history: “They taught their classes like college courses and challenged you to really think about the historical facts and events they were teaching.”
“I started my writing career later in life,” he continued, “after 40 years engaged in another discipline that I thoroughly enjoyed, and which gave me certain perceptions about life. I’m learning that each author has something to bring to the table; insights that spark the creation of something special for themselves and for their readers.”