This of course, apart from the political changes, happened also for the development of MECO. It started from sharing a rather well-defined problem from which it expanded more and more in other fields. This, on one hand, was due to the underlying common physical concepts and, on the other hand, due to personal careers and new cooperation of the participating scientists. Here this expansion is only sketched in its simplest elements.
4.1. MECO until the Yugoslavian War
The organization of MECO 1 established a form of a new type of conference similar to a combination of the European Study Conferences and Schools of the EPS (see above Section 2.3
). On one hand a better balance between East and West was intended, on the other hand the meeting should be open to aspiring scientists. The organization of the MECO Meetings also runs along these lines. In particular:
Each year changing the side of the Iron Curtain for the meeting place.
All participants accommodated in one location (this sets a limit to about 100 participants), first realized in 1976, at MECO 3 and present (with exceptions) for the whole time of the meeting (three days).
No parallel sessions as usually at large conferences.
Free stay for at least participants from the eastern side, eventually support of travel expenses. For western participants a small amount covered the stay (e.g., for the stay in Liblice castle (MECO 13) 50 U.S. dollars had to be paid).
Participants mainly from MECO centers but in principal open to all scientists.
No proceedings (with rare exceptions MECO 19 and MECO 45). The idea was to report on ongoing research, which contained recently published material and intended publications.
Invited review talks (chosen by the organizers in cooperation with the advisory board), contributed talks (selected out of applications for a talk otherwise shifted to the poster session), and posters (since 1977 MECO 4).
Reports from different groups about research plans, topics of future seminars, etc.
Contrary to the aim of crossing the Iron Curtain the MECO 2 took place in West Germany. It may be that the organization in Hungary, which might have been the natural next place, was not possible because Szepfalusy was organizing the IUPAP conference. With U. Krey, W. Gebhardt, G. Obermair, W. Dultz, and J. Keller, a group of physicists was working in the field of phase transitions and critical phenomena at the new University of Regensburg. Only some years later the intended zig-zag change of meeting places through the Iron Curtain could be reached (see the maps in Figure 8
It also took some time to find a suitable structure of presenting the results of the participating scientists. Poster sessions first appeared in the late 1960s, but it got the appropriate acceptance at the American Physics Conference 1975 [86
]. At MECO meetings such sessions were introduced in 1977 at MECO 4. It was an important step to increase the exchange of ongoing work in the different groups and opened the possibility (especially for young scientists) to present very recent—so far unpublished-work. The poster were accessible during the whole time of the meeting.
At the MECO 4 meeting in Switzerland for the first time East Germany participated, and the researchers presented their results. It was the group around Adolf Kühnel from University of Leipzig. “In the ‘Solid State Theory’ working group founded in 1972 in the course of the third university reform in the physics section, Kühnel soon dealt with the theory of phase transitions, with Steffen Trimper and Thomas Nattermann in particular. The study of the theory of structural phase transitions in ferroelectrics took place partly in collaboration with experimental physicists in Leipzig, in particular from the working group ‘Physics of Condensed Matter’ by Artur Lösche, and in Halle with Horst Beige” (from [87
], translation by the author).
The first advisory board was named at first in the second circular of MECO 5. It consisted of R. Blinc, G. Meissner, K. A. Müller, P. Szepfalusy, and H. Thomas. Later in the program it was enlarged as can be seen in Table 1
Then, step-by-step more interested groups organized MECO meetings behind and before the Iron Curtain: Poland (MECO 5), East Germany (MECO 11), France (MECO 12), and Czechoslovakia (MECO 13). This also increased the international advisory board, which was named officially in the program of MECO 5. Usually at a MECO meeting the places for the next two years were decided, and if the possible organizers agreed the decision was announced. From these new countries group leaders were included into the advisory board. This led to a continuous increase in the advisory board (see Table 1
At MECO 18 (in Duisburg, Germany 12–14 March 1991) the advisory board envisaged MECO 19 to take place from 31 March to 2 April 1992 in Beograd and MECO 20 in Greece. However just fourteen days later on 31 March 1991 the Yugoslavian war began and lasted ten years. As a result, a breakup of Yugoslavia began and lasted several years. It started in 1991 with Slovenia and Croatia and ended now in total in six states and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, whose status is disputed (for further details see [88
]). Thus, the next MECO meeting could not take place, and the future of MECO remained unclear. In the meantime, however, the Iron Curtain was torn down, the German reunification occurred, and a partial fragmentation of the Soviet union took place (see the map in Figure 8
4.2. Restarting MECO
In the year 1993 at the German Physical Society meeting in Regensburg, F. Schwabl and P. Szépfalusy asked A. Surda from Slovakia and the author if they could organize a meeting (MECO 19) in the next year. This was possible for Surda, and the meeting started with 18 invited talks 55 posters. Since this restart was a special event, proceedings of this meeting [89
] were published. The author had the possibility to organize then in 1995 MECO 20 in Austria. Thus, a restart of the MECO was made possible, and the meeting has taken place every year since.
However, the general circumstances have changed a lot. Most important were the changes in the political situation in Europe: the fall of the Iron Curtain, the changes in the enlargement of the European Community, and the economical changes for the scientific community by the development of European research programs. Two programs should be named: INTAS for grants to support research cooperation with the New Independent States (founded 29 June 1993) and COST (see Figure 9
). This action was dedicated to scientific collaboration and complementing national research funds. It was in fact founded already in 1971 and is the longest-running European framework for research and innovation. Researchers affiliated with institutions in Near Neighbor Countries can participate in COST Actions on the basis of ascertained mutual benefit subject to approval.
The strategy of the action highlighted “the importance of interdisciplinary bottom-up networks as impactful tools to bridge the participation gap and close the innovation divide in Europe while providing opportunities for younger generations.” (Preamble in [90
]) This is pretty similar to the MECO concept, although it was never written down.
The increase in the number of countries belonging to the European Community and the possibility to access financial support for research programs made it necessary for the organizers of MECO to introduce conference fees. Each organizer had—as before 1991—to care for the financial support, the gain was the remaining independence from restrictions made by larger organization and flexibility. The fee usually covered accommodation, meals, and social events. However, it remained possible to support participants from non-EU countries and students. Moreover, national institutions also supported the cooperation with non-EU countries, and this also made it possible for scientists of non-EU countries to participate at MECO conferences.
Another important step in sharing knowledge was the foundation of ArXiv—the preprint server—by Paul Ginsparg, a Ph. D. student of Kenneth G. Wilson in the year 1991 [91
]. One should remember that at the beginning of the 1970s there were places where “at that time there was no physics colloquium with any speakers from abroad, …there has not yet existed the internet at the time, international phone calls were discouraged as too expensive, and…personal contacts to established scientists were restricted to sending them postcards requesting reprints (and possibly preprints)” [17
Without going into detail in this publication, the interdisciplinary character of contributions also increased at MECO meetings. At MECO 37 (2012) under the title ‘Interdisciplinary applications’ contributions were announced for the first time, but in the program they were not identified. Only at MECO 42 (2017) could contributions under this title be identified.
The spreading of ‘Statistical Thoughts’ can be described as in a Report to the 2002 General Assembly of the IUPAP commission for Statistical Physics by the chairmen Kurt Binder [92
]. There under the title ‘New Developments’ it was mentioned that “research in statistical physics maintains an interdisciplinary character, both within physics and even outside of it”. This also holds for the development of the MECO meetings. In order to give a specific example one can list the following selection of talks:
MECO 4 (1977): K. Binder Phase transitions in systems with disorder
MECO 6 (1979): C. De Dominicis Systems with Quenched Random Impurities Including Spin Glasses
MECO 16 (1989): I. Kondor Fluctuations and chaos in the Ising spin glasses
MECO 25 (2000): I. Kondor Spin glass effects in finance
MECO 43 (2018): J.-P. Bouchaud Statistical physics in economics and finance
“Econophysics originated in the 1990s, simultaneously in two different places. Eugene Stanley in Boston, USA, and Imre Kondor in Budapest, Hungary, as professors of physics allowed their students to write their graduate theses on statistical physics by applying financial data.” [93
]. It demonstrates what was formulated by D. Sherrington (a speaker of MECO 20): “The scientific journey of discovery has been highly interdisciplinary, and there is much more scope, in many directions.” [94
]. Even earlier it was noted: “We illustrate the general principle that in biophysics, econophysics and possibly even city growth, the conceptual framework provided by ‘scaling and universality’ may be of use in making sense of complex statistical data” (from the abstract of [95
] accentuation by the author). Indeed, in 2006 at MECO 31, S. Galam gave an invited lecture on sociophysics (for a short introduction see, e.g., [96
On the other hand, the tight connection to experimental research was weakened over the time. To quantify this change, deeper analysis of the contributions to MECO is necessary. At least at the meeting of the advisory board at MECO 33 this observation was on the agenda.
The development of MECO geographically and personally together with the scientific changes which were identified with the term ‘Statistical Thought’ led to a new orientation of the content presented at MECO meetings. This has been expressed by the organizers of MECO 43: “ Today MECO attracts scientists working in the field of statistical physics and related areas from the whole Europe and other continents. It covers the whole spectrum of topics ranging from ‘statistical mechanics, condensed matter, soft matter, active matter, quantum many body systems and quantum information, frustrated and disordered systems, complex systems, complex networks, classical and quantum critical phenomena, non-equilibrium phenomena’ to interdisciplinary applications of statistical physics and it follows current developments in these fields and related areas. …This year there are many contributions on interdisciplinary applications of statistical physics including those in ‘finance, social sciences, complex system, biophysics and information theory’.” (accentuation by the authors).
Thus, MECO as a bottom-up undertaking of at least two generations of scientists showed enough flexibility concerning its scientific content and enough engagement concerning its organization to survive the political, economic, and scientific changes happening in the 1990s in Europe.
4.3. The Development of MECO in Simple Numbers
The data material for an analysis consists of the available programs of the MECO meetings. There one can find the different contributions, the names of the authors with their affiliation, the title, and abstracts. In addition, one has the list of participants of the meeting, the local organizing committee, and the advisory board. A glimpse of a quantitative analysis of this data is given by the two plots in Figure 10
. Figure 10
a shows the stabilization of the numbers of contributions, authors, and countries contributing to the meetings.
The increase in contributions goes along with the increase in participating countries in the first years, and since MECO 4 1977 (see left arrow in Figure 10
a) it is due to the poster session. Concerning the number of authors and their distribution over the presentations is dependent on the presentation of the program by the organizers, in some cases only the speaker or the presenting person at the poster is denoted in the program.
The peaks in the number of contributions are related to the place where the MECO meeting takes place. If it is in a city with universities or nearby there are additional contributions from authors, which participated only on a day-by-day basis. This is seen 1991 in Duisburg, 2003 in Saarbrücken, 2011 in Lviv, and 2016 in Vienna. One of the largest meetings was MECO 28 from 20 to 22 March 2003 on the campus of the Saar University (see right arrows in Figure 10
a). About 180 scientists from Europe met to keep up to date with current developments in the field of Condensed Matter Physics and Statistical Physics. More than one-third of scientists from former Eastern countries participated.
The percentage of Western and Eastern contributions at the MECO meetings is shown in Figure 10
b. The country of the affiliation of the authors contributing is taken for the classification Western, Eastern and Other Countries (non European). After 1991 former East German institutions are counted as Western countries, all other new Eastern countries remained Eastern. The gaps (MECO 6, 14, 35, 38) are due to insufficient data (e.g., incomplete list of contributions are available and/or not all authors are shown). As one would have expected, especially for the period before 1991, the Eastern contributions are largest when the MECO takes place in an Eastern country.
A more specific preliminary analysis has been presented at MECO 45 by Olesya Mryglod [97
] and will be published within the project [8
]. It contains, e.g., a more detailed geographical, authorship, and collaboration analysis.