ERWIN SCHRÖDINGER (August 12, 1887 – January 4, 1961)
One of the fathers of quantum mechanics, he made revolutionary advances in physics.
- Won the Nobel Prize in physics for his Schrödinger equation (1933).
- Earned the Max Planck Medal, the highest award in German physics. (1937).
- Taught at prestigious universities such as Princeton, Oxford, and the University of Vienna.
Best known for his cat thought experiment, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger contributed significantly to fields of wave mechanics and wave equation. In 1933, he co-won the Nobel Prize for Physics for the introduction of Schrödinger’s wave, which is still widely used in modern quantum theory.
Born in Vienna, Austria, on August 12, 1887, Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger was the only child of Rudolph and Georgine Schrödinger. Schrödinger’s father was interested in a variety of subjects. He earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry, studied botany, published a series of essays on plant phylogeny, and even took to painting.
Schrödinger’s years in Gymnasium provided him with a deep affection for poetry and the sciences. In 1906 he enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied physics under Franz S. Exner and Friedrich Hasenöhrl. He obtained his doctorate in 1910. Following his studies, he took a research position at the university’s Second Physics Institute.
After serving as an officer in World War I in the Austrian artillery, Schrödinger took a professorship at the University of Zurich, where he remained for the next six years. As a professor of theoretical physics, Schrödinger’s pupils regarded him as a fantastic instructor. He performed research on thermodynamics, atomic spectra, and the heat of particular solids. It was during this time that he married his wife, Annemarie Bertel.
Schrödinger’s personal life was confusing. While he was married to Bertel, he fathered a daughter with the wife of a colleague. He lived in a household with two different women as romantic partners. While in Ireland, he fathered two more daughters with another woman.
In 1926, he published the foundational articles of quantum wave mechanics, the first being, “Quantisierung als Eigenwertproblem” or “Quantization as an Eigenvalue Problem.” Through this paper and those that followed, Schrödinger built upon previous work performed by Louis de Broglie, who claimed that particles of matter sometimes act like waves in certain circumstances. He described this behavior through his famous Schrödinger equation.
His theories drove controversy in the scientific community, and in response to this criticism, Schrödinger developed a thought experiment popularly known as Schrödinger’s cat.
In this experiment, he placed a cat in a steel box. There is a minuscule amount of radioactivity within the box, such that there is an equal probability of an atom decaying or not decaying. If the atom decays, it released a vial of poisonous gas inside the box, killing the cat. In this state, the wave function of the atom is in two states: decay, and non-decay. This means that it also traps the cat into two states: dead and alive.
Schrödinger thought that the outcome of this thought experiment was quite fantastic. Many physicists at the time pondered how this cat could be in the superposition of both death and life, which is a question that popular science fans and physicists still ponder to this day.
In 1933, Schrödinger was a professor at the University of Berlin and served among great intellectuals such as Albert Einstein. Hitler rose to power that same year, and Schrödinger left Germany for England. While staying there, he earned a fellowship at the University of Oxford. He then traveled to the United States and lectured at Princeton University in 1934 and was offered a tenured position at the prestigious institution; however, he rejected the offer. He traveled around the world lecturing at various universities such as the University of Graz in his home country of Austria and Ghent University in Belgium.
In 1954, Schrödinger wrote his book Nature and the Greeks. This book traces modern science’s roots back to ancient Greece and the foundations of Western thought. In this book, he expressed his apprehension to uphold science as the only means to seek answers to the mysteries of human existence. He expounded upon this metaphysical idea in later works.
After working at the University of Ghent, Schrödinger started working at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. He became Director of the School for Theoretical Physics and remained there until his retirement in 1955.
It was in Dublin that Schrödinger performed research in the philosophy and history of science, as well as physics. Here he wrote, What Is Life, a book that attempted to explain how to use quantum physics to explain the formidability of genetic structures. This book remains one of the rudimentary works on this topic.
In 1956, Schrödinger retired from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and returned to the University of Vienna, taking the position of professor emeritus.
END OF LIFE
After contracting tuberculosis in his seventies, Schrödinger died on January 4, 1961, in Vienna. In 1993, scholars dedicated the Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics to him in Vienna. Along with this humbling honor, they named the larger crater on the far side of the moon after him as well. He is immortalized and remembered as one of the fathers of quantum mechanics.