Letter to Edmond Becquerel: “Happy Birthday, Edmond!”

24 March 2020

This tuesday, March 24th was the 200th anniversary of your birth. Everything was ready with  organizing a symposium in your honour in the large amphitheatre Farabeuf near the Ecole de Médecine in Paris. We had thought big with about 470 possible participants and had a few cold sweats at the beginning of January, thinking that it was perhaps too big, and that a room of 120 participants (that we could have/should have chosen) would have been enough if, in the end, the participants were only a few dozen. And what a sad image of a big and almost empty room to celebrate this event… And finally it was the right choice, since after a timid start until the end of January, hence our fears, the registration curve started to rise quickly and reached 260 people in early March, promising to reach 300 for the D-day of March 24th, even beyond our expectations!

The reason was simple however, your scientific work and your personality attracted many circles, coming from the world of solar energy, that of photography, that of phosphorescence, that of teaching but also that of lovers of the history of science, and from that period at the beginning of the 19th century which was the scientific matrix of today’s world marked by the discovery of the electric fairy and the passionate and exciting debates between scientists from all over the world. Historians and curators from Japan, Amsterdam, oxford had even registered. And then there was also a final wave of people who did not fall into any declared category, people who one imagines to be interested in culture in general and curious to discover an unknown scientist. It has to be said that the proposed program had something to bring together beyond traditional boundaries, touching on all facets of your activity, and linking them to their current developments, carried by well-known, and less well-known, talented speakers.

Unfortunately, reality decided otherwise with the beginning of the corona virus pandemic. For a long time we had hoped that things would get better, as if by a miracle, but on 5th March it became clear that the symposium could not be held. We were still only at the stage of banning closed gatherings of more than 5,000 people, but we preferred to take the lead and, indeed, it was a wise and difficult choice. Even the small ceremony in a small circle, planned for the end of the day in front of your laboratory/house at the National Museum of Natural History, and which we would have liked to maintain to mark the occasion, had to be cancelled under the strict confinement measures.

It was a question, you will be surprised, of inaugurating the installation of a plaque entitled “Here in 1839, Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect”. It would have looked good, especially since another plaque is affixed at the entrance of the house: the one dedicated to your son Henri, for his discovery of natural radioactivity in 1896 and who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for it in 1903 with Pierre and Marie Curie. He even gave your name to the unit of measurement of radioactivity. By these curious coincidences that history sometimes reserves for us, the two discoverers of great new energies happen to be from the same family and in the same place. You couldn’t have known it, Edmond, but your name will now be associated for ever with solar energy, perhaps the great energy in the making of the 21st century.

Keep sure, Edmond, that we’re not going to give up on you. March 24th has passed, of course, but we still have the whole year 2020 to catch up, when the virus will finally be defeated. By the way, for your information, we have a date in sight for the postponement of the symposium, it should be November 30, 2020, at the same place and with all those who had blocked the date of March 24 in their calendars.

Paris, March 24, 2020

Daniel Lincot, CNRS Research Director at the Institut Photovoltaïque d’Île de France

Bertrand Lavédrine, Professor at the Museum national d’Histoire Naturelle

Co-organizers of the bicentenary of the birth of Edmond Becquerel

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