Speech by H.E. Yves Leterme, Prime Minister of Belgium, 100th Anniversary of the first Solvay Conference on Physics
Your Majesty,Excellencies,Ladies and Gentlemen‘Eureka!’, that triumphant shout of Archimedes in his bath, is probably the most widely known phrase by a scientist of any place or age. But, as the American scientist Isaac Asimov wrote, ‘Eureka’ - I found it! - is not the most exciting shout in science. He said, and I quote: “The most exciting phrase in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is : "That's funny!." End of quote. And he is quite right.Apples had been falling from trees for centuries and millennia before Isaac Newton said: “That’s funny. Why do things fall? And why do they fall at different speed?” His calculations on gravity changed the way people understood the universe.Scientific progress indeed rests on a capacity of constant curiosity, of wonderment. It is an interesting etymology that in the word wonderment, there is wonder, as in the French word émerveillement, there is merveille. For science indeed is the capacity to imagine ‘wonders’; to think the unthinkable; to imagine the unimaginable. Fundamental research is a fascinating voyage of discovery, is adventure.That is why most great discoveries were not made by a 'specialist' or a 'researcher', but by someone who said: “That’s funny!”, by someone who had a brilliant intuition of a new explanation, long in advance of any possible proof.It is important to stress the adventurous nature of fundamental research because it is important to attract young people to it, to interest them in stretching their minds and imagination and curiosity to the limit.Science must indeed be curiosity driven, not application oriented. The proof is around us. Most of the inventions which have changed our lives were not the products of specific research. They were and are the unexpected but welcome applications of revolutions in the fundamental understanding of the natural laws. The challenges our world faces, in terms of environment, energy, sustainable development, make fundamental research more important than ever. Governments have a duty to foster the fascinating voyage of discovery which fundamental research is, not only by financial means but by putting curiosity and audacity, ambition and the pursuit of excellence back at the heart of our education systems. But governments can only do so much. They need institutions like the Solvay Institutes who have such an impressive tradition of fostering fundamental research, of bringing together the most brilliant minds of their time. As well in this field as in the industrial field, the name Solvay stands for excellence, and our country is proud of and grateful to the Solvay family and all those who work with it.I am honoured to be part of the celebration of this hundredth anniversary. I congratulate the Solvay Institutes most sincerely on their splendid achievement. And I wish them a future which is just as successful. For civilisations show their vitality by their scientific, cultural and economic creativity. As the American scientist Martin H. Fischer said, and I quote: ‘A living civilization creates; a dying one builds museums’. End of quote. This is of course an exaggeration. But it is only by scientific creativity that we can afford the museums, and that we can prevent our civilisation from becoming a museum. I know that the Solvay Institutes will continue to help our country in that achievement and I thank them for that.Thank you for your attention.