Famous Scientists

Erwin Schrodinger

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Erwin Schrodinger bequeathed to scientific posterity the foundations of the study of wave mechanics, crucial to understanding the behavior of subatomic particles and light.  Many students are familiar (sometimes frustratingly so) with the mind experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat.  Few, however, know the surprising bio-facts of this highly individual man’s life.  The Austrian-born pioneer in quantum physics and genetic theory had a most unconventional personal life, and a very long formal name; Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger.  Despite eventually receiving the Nobel Prize, he was compelled to relocate a number of times, seeking a country in which to work that offered religious tolerance, and a community in which his ménage a trois would be accepted.  His greatest achievement, the Schrödinger Equation, contributed profoundly to the understanding of subatomic behavior.

Schrodinger’s biography shows that even with severe illness and family financial disaster, great accomplishment is possible.  Born in 1887, in Austria, to a comfortable and educated Protestant family with some previous scientific connections, he was a gifted student in the local Gymnasium.  His strengths and interests lay not only in the physics and math courses that he mastered with effortless enjoyment, but in languages, both ancient and modern, as well as poetry.

In 1914, at the age of 27, he achieved the highest possible academic degree, representing independent scholarship.  This degree is called Habilitation.  Almost immediately, WW I interrupted his studies and ruined his family financially.  He taught at a variety of German institutions, but continued his work.

At this time, the primary evidence for the nature and action of subatomic particles came from indirect observations, for example, from noting the spectral lines formed when light passed through prisms.  He began doing experimental work in color and light back in the 1890s, collaborating with prominent scholars.  It was actually while suffering from tuberculosis and attempting a recuperative stay at a sanatorium in the 1920s, that he wrote one of his most important works.

In this and three other papers, he explained how different energy states of an atom’s electrons could be described and even predicted via wave equations.  The Schrodinger Equation is his great contribution to quantum mechanics.

As an illustration, published in 1935, he offered a thought experiment (hypothetical only) as follows:  A cat is in a box with a source of poison gas that would be triggered (or not) by the decay of one electron in one direction or another.  Because of the uncertainty of the electron’s behavior, there exists a moment in time when the observer is unsure whether the cat is alive or dead, and in some sense, it’s both!

Schrodinger found that he could not tolerate the atmosphere of anti-Semitism that increasingly dominated German life.  Before the war, he took a position at Oxford, went back to Graz, and returned to Oxford.  After the war, as an enemy alien, employment was more difficult, but he taught in Dublin, eventually acquiring Irish citizenship.  A persistent problem with finding a compatible place to live and pursue an emerging interest in genetics was his ménage a trois (or more).

He eventually moved on somewhat from quantum physics after a premature attempt to publish a unified theory, and having been somewhat disillusioned by the atomic bomb, as well as, finally, preferring to apply the principles of physics to the study of life, with surprising prescience regarding the genetic “code”. He died back in Austria, accompanied by his mistress.

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