100 years of international collaboration in physics

8 November 2022
IUPAP centennial

The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) is an offspring of the International Research Council, a temporary body created after the First World War to rebuild and promote research across the sciences. IUPAP was established in 1922 with 13 member countries and held its first general assembly in Paris the following year. Originally, neither the International Research Council nor IUPAP included any of the countries of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria–Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire). Many lessons in science diplomacy had to be learned before IUPAP and the other scientific unions became truly international and physicists from all countries could apply to join. Today, with 60 member countries, the union strongly advocates that no scientist shall be excluded from the scientific community as long as their work is based on ethics and the principles of science in its highest ideals – an aspect that certainly will be further elaborated by the working group on ethics established by IUPAP in October last year. 

Information exchange

Among IUPAP’s commissions covering all the different disciplines of physics  is the Commission on Symbols, Units, Nomenclature, Atomic Masses and Fundamental Constants (C2), formed in 1931. The task of this commission is to promote the exchange of information and views among the members of the international scientific community in the general field of fundamental constants. As an example, the international system of units (SI) was originally recommended by IUPAP in 1960, and C2 has maintained its role in recommending further improvements, including resolutions supporting the choice of constants to define the new SI as well as the decision to proceed with the redefinition of four of the seven units made in May 2019. 

From 11 to 13 July, around 250 physicists from some 70 countries gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of IUPAP at a symposium held at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. The symposium was one of the official events of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development, which was officially inaugurated only a few days earlier at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. About 40% of the participants were physically present, while the rest connected online. Various panels composed of international experts discussed important issues in alignment with the IUPAP’s core aims, including: how to support and encourage early-career physicists, how to improve diversity in physics, how to strengthen the ties to physicists working in industry, how to improve the quality of physics education, and how to promote physics in less developed countries.

IUPAP continues to promote physics as an essential tool for development and sustainability in the next century

A number of influential scientists, including Giorgio Parisi (La Sapienza) and Laura Greene (Florida State University), described their roles in providing evidence-based advice to their respective governments on science and shared best practices that could be useful across borders. Other prominent speakers included William Phillips (Maryland), who covered the quantum reform of modern metric systems; Donna Strickland (Waterloo), who discussed the physics of high-intensity lasers; and Takaaki Kajita (Tokyo), who presented 100 years of neutrino physics via an online connection with the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Bologna. Climate scientist Tim Palmer (Oxford) argued that a supercomputing facility modelled on the organisation of CERN would enable a step-change in quantifying climate change, while Stewart Prager (Princeton) outlined a new project sponsored by the American Physical Society to engage physicists in reducing nuclear threat. Dedicated panels discussed the development of physics in Africa and the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America. It is clear that in these regions IUPAP has a large potential to foster further international collaboration.

IUPAP enhances the vital role of young physicists, among others, through the award of early-career scientist prizes. In Trieste, several recent recipients of the prize were invited to present their research. The talks were all striking and left the audience with high hopes for the future of physics. Furthermore, the logistics in the auditorium and the handling of all the questions that came in from online participants were smoothly taken care of by members of the International Association of Physics Students.

The centennial symposium was an opportunity to reflect on IUPAP’s role in promoting international cooperation and to welcome Ukraine as a new member. The decision to admit Ukraine was expedited to send a strong signal of support for the war-torn country – a war that has not spared its scientific institutions and the people who work there, as expressed by the president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences Anatoly Zagorodny in a powerful online presentation. IUPAP has issued a statement strongly condemning the Russian aggression in Ukraine, while also expressing the principle that no scientist should be excluded from union-sponsored conferences, as long as he or she carries out work not contributing to weapons development. To overcome difficulties related to conferences, IUPAP has put in place that excluded scientists can participate using the Union as their affiliation – similar to the model applied for the Olympic Games.

IUPAP has served the physics community for 100 years and has strong ambitions to continue to assist in the worldwide development of physics and to promote physics as an essential tool for development and sustainability in the next century.


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