Hans van Houwelingen / Sonsbeek 2008
A permanent historical update of the National Monument in memory of Hendrik Antoon Lorentz
On a beautiful green slope in Sonsbeek Park in Arnhem the national monument for Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (1853 -1928), one of Holland’s greatest physicists and 1902 Nobel Prize winner for physics, has been standing for three-quarters of a century. The rear side of his statue also contains the names and portrayals of other important physicists who influenced him or else were influenced by him – Huygens, Fresnel, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein and Bohr.
It is striking that at that time Lorentz’s legacy on the monument was set in the context of other generations. Planck, Einstein and Bohr were still alive when it was erected in 1931. The lineage of physicists who influenced each other undoubtedly continues down to the present day. When I first saw the monument I pictured myself as standing at the source of a gigantic mental system that has developed worldwide in ever-increasing numbers of brain cells. The Netherlands Society for Physics (Nederlandse Natuurkundige Vereniging) put me in touch with Professor Frits Berends, a professor of physics who has based his career on the study of the physics of elementary particles with a special focus on the history of physics and the work of Hendrik Antoon Lorentz in particular. I asked him if it was possible to chart the development of physics by drawing up a list of names of physicists who have furthered the ideas and discoveries of Lorentz and his successors whose names are inscribed on his monument.
In consultation with the renowned physicists, Professor C. Beenakker, Professor R.H. Dijkgraaf, Professor W. Van Saarloos and Professor G. van der Steenhoven, Professor Berends has compiled a list of hundred and forty two scientists who have taken over the torch from Lorentz and passed it on once more. An explanation of the choices on the list is given on page 54 of this publication.
During the art exhibition, Sonsbeek 2008, Hendrik Antoon Lorentz’s monument has been given contemporary relevance with the addition of these names. As an update, the names of a hundred and forty two scientists, from the moment the limestone monument was unveiled by Princess Juliana in 1931 down to the present, were carved in it.
Scholars such as Lorentz are the heroes of science. But our age is no longer one of revolutionary scientific theories thought up by a handful of brilliant individuals. The formulating and testing of hypotheses remains the heart of science, but today a closely-knit structure of research, combined with the harnessing of forces on a global scale is an absolute requirement. The applicability of science across the whole board of society is essential for progress. It is possible then to trace Lorentz’s influence in a wide range of aspects of modern life.
The many new names on Lorentz’s monument show this development. Implicitly they point to the ineluctable finiteness of life, the irrevocable fact that science only takes up temporary residence in a single brain and that it owes its grandeur to the flow of new people who take ‘knowledge’ a step further. Lorentz thus belongs to a long series of scientific descendants.
The names of these descendants breathe new life into his statue. It shows not only how great the influence of a brilliant mind can be, but also how a great progeny ensures the continuance of that mind.
Lorentz is regarded as the one who conceived of the electron that was then discovered as the first in a series of elementary particles. Initially he referred to them as “ions” in connection with the terminology of chemistry that was new at the time. He described then as "extremely small particles, charged with electricity, that are present in staggering quantities in all weighable matter, and through the splitting and movement of which we attempt to explain all electrical and optical phenomena that are not confined to the free ether."
Today, in 2008, a good century later, the Large Hadron Collider has been activated in the CERN laboratory in Geneva with the aim of verifying the existence of the final part of the present theoretical model of the elementary particles. This 27-kilometre long particle accelerator was built in order to produce the final unobserved elementary particle, the Higgs particle. The amount of data obtained by the LHC is so immense and complex that the calculations can only be carried out by a worldwide grid of computers and institutes.
In the light of this scientific development, it is now an opportune moment to render visible in Lorentz’s monument the realization of his dream of ever more profound ideas and discoveries. In a speech in 1900 he said, “It is a splendid thing to search for the truth and, if that is possible, to add to our store of it”. In the course of a good hundred years an extensive and glorious progeny has built up the science of modern physics, the first stone of which was laid by Lorentz with the electron. It has now reached the point of verifying the final elementary particle. Meanwhile modern life can no longer be thought of independently of the implications of developments in this science.
Monuments have the power to freeze time. Sometimes they are even erected for precisely this purpose. How else can an unpalatable event be justified? With others, the opposite is the case; they are pulled down to set things right. The great majority of memories perpetuated in stone or bronze however are engulfed by oblivion.
Today few people know who Anton Lorentz was and why the monument designed by Oswald Wenckebach (1895-1962) was erected. It is my intention to try and turn the tide for a while and to take this opportunity to add a piece of history. The Lorentz monument will become an artwork that will convert a historical moment into a dynamic topicality, harnessing absolute science to human energy. This update is a heroic attempt to convert the forgotten stone into flesh and blood. Or rather, bearing in mind the fact that this attempt too will not escape oblivion, it is an ode to what is perhaps the cruellest physical phenomenon, that of mortality.
During the exhibition Sonsbeek 2008 in Park Sonsbeek in Arnhem Lorentz’s monument will be updated and the names of a new series of scientists will be carved in the limestone. This is a lengthy task requiring great care and patience. It will be carried out by professional craftsmen and will take up the entire period of the exhibition. It is a hundred-day performance about the transition from the impermanence (of the exhibition) to the eternity (of the monument). Or, to put it another way, it is a battle between life and death.
Even though the impersonal is an important style feature of science, it remains above all to quote Albert Einstein here. Referring to H.A Lorentz’s brilliant mind, he described him as ‘a living artwork’.