The Swiss Academy of Natural Science

Founded in 1815

The Swiss Academy of Natural Science, or Schweizerische Naturforschende Gesellschaft, was founded in 1815. Rather surprisingly, it was not founded in Switzerland as we will explain below. Initially it was not an academy in the usual sense and only much later adopted 'academy' within its name. We shall, however, for simplicity refer to it as an academy throughout this article.

The first attempt to found a Swiss Academy occurred in 1797 but the turmoil caused by the Napoleonic wars meant that it did not succeed. Another attempt was made in 1802 but again political turmoil caused by the French conquests under Napoleon prevented the formation of an Academy. From November 1814 to June 1815 the Congress of Vienna took place in Vienna where the European powers provided a long-term peace plan for Europe to end the uncertainty and political changes brought about by Napoleon. This provided the right conditions to allow the third attempt to form a Swiss Academy to be successful. On 5 October 1815, 36 scientists from Geneva, Vaud and Bern met on an estate in Mornex, near Geneva, and founded the "General Swiss Society for all Natural Sciences" which has now become the Swiss Academy of Natural Science. Geneva is, of course, now in Switzerland but in 1815 it was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont.

In many ways the young Academy was more certain about what it did not want to be rather than producing a clear list of aims and objectives. It did not want the central organisation of the academies in Paris, London and Berlin. It also did not want to be an academy consisting of only top scientists so it aimed at being a very different organisation to other academies which had been set up [2]:-
"Everything is voluntary in our general Swiss society," it said, and the study of nature should be "for the greater part of its members their only love, everything else being incidental." Therefore, "only a very simple, unpretentious organization" should be established. It should form a "point of unification for all true friends of a patriotic nature," to which, apart from a small minority of "real scholars," primarily different categories of laymen were included: for example "young beginners and lovers of nature," either professionally or in their spare time dedicated to practical questions or, thanks to having "a favourable external financial situation", were able to turn to nature as a private scholar. Based on "liberal principles, as far as possible" and being a "truly republican organization," amateurs and scholars should form a "scientific republic."
In line with not wishing to have a central location, the young Academy held its annual meeting in a different place each year. Two themes dominated the early academy. One was political with the aim of unifying different strands within the country. The other main scientific concern was, not surprisingly, the study of alpine rocks and at the first meeting in October 1815 there was discussion as to how blocks of alpine rock had reached their present locations. The production of maps was another important topic since this had both political and scientific sides. Given the mountainous nature of Switzerland, mapping the country was a truly three-dimensional task [1]:-
The countries of Europe built up their triangulation networks independently of each other and were then only able to connect them at a few points. The Königsberg astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, therefore, proposed a new, cross-border network of triangles, a project that the Prussian general Johann Jacob Baeyer took up in 1861. The "Central European degree measurement" was one of the first international scientific co-operations. The overall goal was to explore the shape of the Earth and its gravitational field. When the Prussian state invited the Swiss Federal Council to participate in the "Central European degree measurement," it immediately pledged to establish a geodetic commission within the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences. This commission participated in the process of reaching an agreement between the participating States on the standardization of methods and measures, which was negotiated between 1864 and 1912 at 17 conferences. Soon the cooperation extended across the whole of Europe, which is why it changed its name to "European degree measurement". In 1886, when Mexico, Chile, Argentina, the USA and Japan joined, it became the "International Earth Measurement".
The Geology Commission was one of several Commissions that the Academy set up. The Academy had a mathematics section, the first President of this section being Hermann Schwarz. In 1869 Schwarz was appointed to a chair at Zurich but in 1875 he left to take up a chair at Göttingen. After Schwarz left Zurich the activities of the Mathematics Section of the Scientific Research Society of Switzerland rapidly faded out. The Swiss Mathematical Society, however, was founded in 1910 as a section of the Swiss Academy of Natural Science.

The Academy began as a "very simple, unpretentious organization" but as it grew it became a complex, well-organised body. It was run by a board on which members served for six years. Remarkably, at a time when academies were for men, the finances of the Swiss Academy was run by a woman, Fanny Custer (1867-1930), for over 40 years [2]:-
Fanny Custer managed the commissions finances, coordinated communications between the board and member societies, and also oversaw the editing of extensive obituaries for deceased members.
The Academy was restricted by World War I and World War II in its ability to undertake international collaborations. Attempts after 1945 to modernise Switzerland's scientific research structure were led by the Academy, but after the Swiss National Science Foundation was set up in 1952, it had the effect of diminishing the importance of the Academy. In order to combat this, the Academy adapted its structures. In 1988 it adopted the name of 'academy' with the 'Swiss Academy of Natural Science', slightly changing it in 2004. In 2006 the Academy became one of four Swiss academies which came together under the common umbrella, the 'Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences'. In 2007, the Academy adopted four main themes which it called platforms: Biology; Chemistry; Geosciences; and Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics.

We give some details of the Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics Platform taken from [4].

The "Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics Platform" of the Swiss Academy of Science incorporates scientific societies and workgroups dedicated to the areas of mathematics, astronomy and physics. The platform's main functions are the support of the organisations' activities as wells as the coordination and promotion of research and education in the field of Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics.

The Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics platform brings together expertise from the fields of mathematics, astronomy and physics. In addition to basic disciplines such as mathematics and physics, very specialized areas such as crystallography or statistics are also covered. The Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics platform promotes exchange within the scientific community and is committed to strong networking and knowledge transfer. It organizes the connection to the relevant international scientific associations. The Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics platform supports young scientists and engages in various activities to promote the enjoyment of science in general and of mathematics, astronomy and physics in particular among young people of all levels of education. It tries to predict and anticipate new trends and potentially interesting directions in research and seeks dialogue with politicians and the general public. On the one hand, to give decision-makers and voters a solid scientific argument, and on the other to sensitize the public to mathematics, astronomy and physics as fundamental and future-oriented sciences.

The Schläfli Prize.

The Prix Schläfli of the Swiss Academy of Sciences is one of the oldest prizes in Switzerland. It has been awarded since 1866 to talented young people in different natural science disciplines. It is named for Alexander Friedrich Schläfli (1832-1863) from Burgdorf who died on 6 October 1863 in Bagdad. He left his fortune to the Swiss Academy for Natural Sciences on condition that the "Society will, by accepting the legacy, award an annual prize on any question in physical science. Competitors must be from the Swiss nation. The selection and the amount are at the discretion of the named Society.'

Since mathematics did not play a large role in the Academy over many years, it is not surprising that this prize has only recently been awarded for mathematics. In 1998 it was awarded to Viviane Baladi for the work "Periodic orbits and dynamical spectra", in 2007 to Christian Wuthrich for "Self-points on elliptic curves" and, also in 2007, to Tatiana Mantuano for "Laplacians in Riemannian Geometry: a Spectral Comparison through Discretization".

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. F Hupfer and B C Schär, Vernetztes Wissen, vernetzte Schweiz. Ein Streifzug durch 200 Jahre SCNAT, Swiss Academy of Sciences.
  2. P Kupper and B C Schär, "Einfache und Anspruchslose Organisation". Zur Geschichte der Akademie der Naturwissenschaften Schweiz, Swiss Academy of Sciences.
  3. History of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, Swiss Academy of Sciences.
  4. Swiss Academy of Sciences website.

Last Updated September 2018