Background and career as a physicist
Solana was born in Madrid, Spain. He comes from a well-known Spanish family, being the grand nephew of Salvador de Madariaga (Javier's grandfather, Rogelio de Madariaga and Salvador de Madariaga were cousins). His father was a chemistry professor, Luis Solana San Martín, who died when Javier was nineteen. His mother, Obdulia de Madariaga Pérez, died in 2005. Javier is the third of five children. His older brother Luis was once imprisoned for his political activities opposing the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, subsequently became a distinguished leader in the Spanish telecommunications industry and was one of the first socialist members of the Trilateral Commission.
Solana studied at the Nuestra Señora del Pilar School, an exclusive Catholic Marianist secondary school, before going to Complutense University (UCM). There as a student in 1963 he suffered sanctions imposed by the authorities for having organised an opposition forum at the so-called Week of University Renovation. In 1964 he clandestinely joined the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), which had been illegal under Franco since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. In the same year he graduated and then spent a year furthering his studies at Spain's Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and in the United Kingdom.
In 1965 he went to the United States, where he spent six years studying at various universities on a Fulbright Scholarship. He visited the University of Chicago and the University of California, San Diego, and then enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There, he taught physics classes as a teaching assistant and carried on independent research; he also joined in the protests against the Vietnam War and was president of the Association of Foreign Students. He received his doctorate in physics from Virginia in 1971 with a thesis on Theory of the Elementary Excitation Spectrum of Superfluid Helium: the Roton Lifetime, extending his planned stay in the US by a year in order to continue his research. Returning to Spain he became a lecturer in solid-state physics at the Autonomous University of Madrid, UAM, and then in 1975 he became a professor at Complutense University. During these years he published more than 30 articles. For a time he worked as assistant to Nicolás Cabrera, whom he had met when Cabrera was professor at the University of Virginia. The last PhD dissertations that he directed were in the early 1990s.