The Life and Science of the Physicist Who Changed Quantum Theory

Book review: Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, by John Gribbin

In honor of the 130th anniversary of Erwin Schrödinger’s birth on August 12, I’m posting a previously published review I wrote on a pop biography of his life and work.

The intricacies of a life are woven inextricably into the weave of work and the professional world. In Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, biographer John Gribbin follows the thread through the Austrian physicist’s fascinating, often eyebrow-raising life alongside scientific milestones. Pleasantly readable, it’s an introduction to seminal ideas for those unfamiliar with the science, and an engaging personal encounter for those familiar with the field.

Responsible for major advancements in quantum mechanics, Schrödinger’s name is now synonymous with what is known as the “cat-in-a-box paradox”, a thought experiment in which a cat, trapped in a box with a breakable vial of poison, can be considered both alive and dead by the outside observer until the box is opened, illustrating the principle of superposition in quantum theory.

In 1926 Schrödinger presented a theory explaining the spectrum of the hydrogen atom, likening its functioning to a wave equation, thus laying the foundation for wave mechanics. The biography also offers unusual insights into the Vienna and Austria of the times, demonstrating the interdependence of science, history and politics.

After a Physics Institute was established at the University of Vienna in 1849, Austria played an increasingly prominent role in the developing field. But for Schrödinger, the pull was also personal, and when he stayed away too long, he was soon searching for opportunities to return.

His upbringing in a Vienna alive with new ideas affected how he thought about science, influencing the concepts of atomic theory for which he won the Nobel Prize with Paul Dirac in 1933. Working on the interpretation of quantum mechanics in Dublin, where Schrödinger stayed longer than anywhere else, Gribbins tells us, “There was only one place Schrödinger was really willing to leave Dublin for – Austria.”

Even Austria’s struggles shaped him. In the aftermath of WWI, Schrödinger suffered through the Allied blockade of Austria-Hungary, that left citizens short of food and coal. “Even after the armistice of 11 November 1918, the victorious powers maintained their blockade of Austria-Hungary, and watched through the winter of 1918-19 while the Empire fell apart,” Gribbin writes. “So desperate did the situation become that Germany, though itself blockaded, sent some food.”

Schrödinger took solace in studying philosophy and developing interests in Eastern, especially Indian, thought, including the Hindu Vedanta and its teaching of only one existent reality. Such ideas influenced his later thinking about quantum physics. It is also likely that the permissive Zeitgeist of Vienna during his formative years shaped his open and unorthodox private life as much as professional development.

The narrative follows the course of Schrödinger’s research and teaching in several countries and two continents and breakthroughs of his career, which were to become his scientific legacy – a restless life that makes exciting reading.

A frequent concern was financial security, and it is thought-provoking to observe how relationships with mentors or lovers may have changed the course of science. He’d wanted, for example, to marry a childhood companion, telling his father of plans to abandon physics for the linoleum business. His father wouldn’t allow sacrificing his passion, and the union never happened. The end of the relationship is described as “formative”: It motivated Schrödinger to throw himself into his work, resulting in his first significant scientific paper.

However on a darker note, it also triggered “his fascination with young girls on the brink of adolescence.” And although Gribbin is careful to point out that Schrödinger never really acted on these urges, it was not always for lack of trying (he was once warned off a colleague’s 12-year-old daughter) and the fixation is troubling. The portrait of the man is honestly complete, flaws and all.

“He was often in love – or he convinced himself that he was in love – and when he was in love, by and large life was good and his scientific creativity benefited.”

The biography is peppered with soap-operas of lust and love. Offered a post at Oxford, Schrödinger accepted on the condition one be made available for a colleague, whose wife became his mistress and had his child. The unorthodox arrangement suited the couples apparently: His wife Anny is quoted saying, “it would be easier to live with a canary bird than with a racehorse, but I prefer the racehorse.”

The staid Oxford establishment was less enthusiastic. Schrödinger’s treatment of his mistress as a second wife was met with horror, his insistence on the living arrangements may have hindered his appointments elsewhere, and ultimately he spent the happiest of his working years in more liberal Dublin.

The book’s strength is its accessibility for readers lacking a scientific background. Gribbin himself is a physicist and a worthy storyteller, translating complex scientific workings into understandable, approachable ideas. Quantum physics isn’t an easy subject and in places the details of scientific analysis are crucial to understanding theory and precedents, so Gribbin writes pared-down explanations and has a knack for effective metaphors. He advises readers knowledgeable in theoretical physics to skip basic explanatory passages or consult his more science-heavy texts, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat or Schrödinger’s Kittens.

This biography is better taken as a telling of Schrödinger’s life, his influences and quirks, connected with the ever-upward trajectory of his game-changing work. Though those interested in either deeper issues of science and insight into the whys beneath this many-layered personality might come away unsatisfied, it succeeds as a personal history. The stories alone are compelling enough.

Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution
by John Gribbin

published March 14, 2013 by Wiley

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository. It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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