A refuge for in-depth academic interaction: that is what the Lorentz Center is. Located on the outskirts of the Leiden Bio Science Park, within the Faculty of Science, researchers from various disciplines come here to meet each other and establish innovative collaborations. Although no official figures are available, there is absolutely no doubt that many scientific breakthroughs have taken place at the Lorentz Center.
Not for researchers only
The Lorentz Center has for many years enjoyed great acclaim in the international scientific community, but what is less well known is that researchers from the social sciences and humanities can also organise four or five-day workshops here. Any researcher with a good idea, be it a professor or a PhD candidate, and regardless of discipline, can submit a proposal. Once the Advisory Board has approved the proposal on the basis of specific criteria (Is it innovative? Does it reach the target group?), the workshop is assigned a budget and a workshop coordinator. He or she deals with any practical matters, leaving researchers free to focus on content.
Like being a student again
In early December Professor of Arabic Language and Culture Petra Sijpesteijn organised an interdisciplinary workshop on medieval Islamic Egypt. She is very enthusiastic about the Lorentz Center. ‘The relatively long format, of four to five days, combined with a cocoon-like environment in which you spend all day together ensures that you are really motivated to work, to achieve something together.’ Even the method of first discussing things in small groups worked really well, despite Sijpesteijn’s original scepticism. ‘It creates a lovely group feeling, like being a student again, rather than an individualistic humanities scholar.’
Learning from each other
Sijpesteijn also valued the multidisciplinary character of the workshop: ‘The direct contact with experts from all kinds of disciplines reminded me that it is only through learning from one another that we can answer really important questions and write history.’ Nor can the role of the organisation be underestimated, says Sijpesteijn: ‘There is always someone available to help you, and in the preparatory phase too, people were ready to brainstorm with us and give us useful content-related feedback. As far as I know, there is only one place where all this is possible: here at the Lorentz Center.’
According to spokeswoman Sietske Kroon, the power of the workshops lies in the fact that they don’t follow the standard conference style. ‘There is a lot of room for discussion,’ she says. ‘Our philosophy is that people come here to practise science by engaging in a dialogue, not by passively listening to lots of talks. We stimulate collaboration and getting to know each other. In addition to the various social events spread throughout the week, our lunch breaks are also relatively long, and we have organised the physical space in such a way that participants can exchange ideas informally and comfortably.’
Roadmap for the future
The recent multidisciplinary extension of the Lorentz Center has been a great success and proposals from all academic disciplines are welcome. There were 77 workshops in 2016; many science-themed workshops, such as Gravity, Quantum Fields and Entanglement, but also the interdisciplinary socio-psychological The Morality of Inequality. ‘The objective differs per workshop,’ says Kroon. ‘Sometimes the goal is to be able to present a roadmap for the future by Friday, at other times, participants hope to instil new life into a seemingly dead research study. And sometimes, researchers work together with companies on solving very concrete problems.’
Renovation of the common room
Thursday 15 December witnessed the festive opening of the renewed common room at the Oort location, which was in serious need of renovation. The common room is the central space of the Lorentz Center and as such plays an important function. This is where people meet to drink coffee or lounge on the sofa, but also to discuss, philosophise or exchange ideas. In other words, great scientific ideas are born here. But after twenty years, the sofa was somewhat outdated and frazzled, and the fridge was on its last legs, as was the coffee machine.
Since a renovation budget would have come at the expense of the workshop budget, the Lorentz Center staff decided to organise a crowdfunding event. In no time the intended €15,000 was collected, entirely thanks to the generous gifts of former participants. If this money is not enough evidence of how much the Lorentz Center is appreciated by its patrons, there are the many reactions on the crowdfunding website: ‘An excellent venue, of the highest value to the scientific community,’ one visitor wrote. Another person commented: ‘Organizing a workshop is a breeze with the support from the Lorentz Center staff.’ A number of visitors were more business-like and pragmatic: ‘Great discussions need a great atmosphere!’ and ‘Just needs to be done.’
Wall of fame
It will come as no surprise that the Lorentz Center staff are delighted with these responses and the proceeds. ‘We were able to renovate completely,’ says Sietske Kroon, ‘a new kitchen, new sofa, new coffee machines, and much more. And we put the names of all contributors on the wall, so they can see it when they come back for another workshop. As people do on a regular basis.’