Brussels’ new BEL Center continues work of physics pioneers


Four universities, including VUB and KU Leuven, are partnering to establish a new physics research centre, based on the work of Belgium’s Nobel Prize Winner and his collaborators

Mass to matter

From the theory of the Big Bang to that of elementary particles, Belgian physicists have made essential contributions to our understanding of how the universe originated and how it looks on a microscopic scale.

To further cement this reputation, four universities have joined forces to build the BEL Center. The goal is to stimulate research in the field of theoretical physics and explain its complicated concepts to the general public.

Seven years ago, physicist François Englert (pictured) became the first Belgian to take home the Nobel Prize for Physics. He won the prize for predicting, way back in 1964, the existence of the elementary particle that gives mass to matter, a key building block of our world on a microscopic scale. It would be five decades before technological progress allowed for his theory to be confirmed in a real-life experiment.

Einstein’s ‘blunder’

Robert Brout, Englert’s long-time collaborator with whom he had developed the theory, had by then passed away. The American-born Brout followed Englert to Belgium after they had worked together in the US and acquired Belgian nationality.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Belgian physicist (and priest!) Georges Lemaître had already changed the way we perceive the world through his ideas on the origins of the universe. These were recorded in his “hypothesis of the primeval atom”, which was instrumental in the development of what came to be known as the Big Bang theory.

Lemaître also deducted that the universe was constantly expanding, contrary to the views of one Albert Einstein. The latter eventually called his initial insistence on a static universe “the biggest blunder of my life”.

Barbara Trachte, Brussels secretary of state for scientific research, at the official opening of the BEL Center

Englert and Brout worked together at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, whereas Lemaître developed his theories at KU Leuven. But all of them were strong advocates of close collaboration between universities.

Lemaître not only promoted academic co-operation, during the Second World War he also helped to ensure that students from ULB – which had to close its doors – could continue their studies in Leuven.

Over the years, the efforts of these pioneers and their successors helped to establish jointly organised courses and a federal collaborative programme. In the meantime, both the universities in Leuven and Brussels had split along language lines, leading to the establishment of, respectively, the French-speaking University of Louvain (UCLouvain) and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).

The goal is to consolidate the partnership between the four universities and the reputation of Belgium in the domain of theoretical physics

- VUB physicist Ben Craps

“After Englert received the Nobel Prize in 2013, the Belgian senate recommended that we establish a new centre,” says professor Ben Craps, VUB physicist and vice-president of the BEL Center. “The goal was to consolidate the partnership between the four universities and the reputation of Belgium in the domain of theoretical physics – particularly in the field of so-called fundamental interactions.”

BEL is short for the Brout Englert Lemaître Center, thus honouring the achievements of these three trailblazers. A main aim of the BEL Center is to stimulate research in different branches of theoretical physics, like cosmology and particle physics, with an international outlook.

“We want to, for example, set up seminars and invite international top scientists here, to make progress through the exchange of ideas,” says Craps. “We also plan to organise interdisciplinary workshops to encourage a dialogue with other science domains. One possible topic could be the use of techniques from physics in artificial intelligence and vice versa.”

Shrouded in mystery

But the BEL Center aims to reach out beyond the academic sphere as well. “We envision activities to make our complex concepts more understandable to the broader public, for example by providing accessible information to teachers. We intend to collaborate with artists as well.”

Such accessible projects are indispensable to demonstrate the importance of theoretical physics to society, which is shrouded in mystery for most of us. “Our insights may be abstract, but they actually apply mathematics in a concrete way to understand how nature works,” explains Craps. “They can also, in the long term, lead to practical applications, in the way Einstein’s theory of general relativity was crucial in the invention of the GPS many decades later.”

Seven years after the initial plans, the BEL Center was officially established last month. But it will still take a few years before it can set up shop in what will be its headquarters – the Tournay-Solvay Castle at the edge of the Sonian Forest in Brussels.

The Tournay-Solvay Castle needs a lot of work before the BEL Center can move in

The castle, situated in a lovely park, was almost completely destroyed by a fire decades ago and needs renovating to the tune of €4.7 million. That is being funded by the Brussels-Capital Region.

In the meantime, activities will already start at the four universities, so that the initiative is well underway when the castle is ready. Theoretical physicists don’t need labs, but the site will have offices, where invited scientists can focus on their work during a temporary stay, and rooms for events such as seminars and workshops.

“The attractive location in the park should be perfect to generate inspiration,” says Craps. “We will have interesting company as well, because the castle also houses a refuge for bats.”

Photos top and centre courtesy BEL Center, photo above courtesy Metzger et Associés Architecture