In 1900, Max Planck’s discovery that energy came in discrete packets birthed quantum theory (QT). The best minds find QT both fascinating and profoundly disturbing. QT’s predictions gel with experimental results.
But the physical laws are so strange and counter-intuitive at sub-atomic level that even the scientists who discovered those laws wondered what was actually going on. The most famous of thought experiments is the tale of Schrõdinger’s Cat, a half-facetious illustration of how a cat may be both dead and alive under the probabilistic laws of QT.
Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrõdinger (1887-1961) was a founding father of QT. His wave equation is key to understanding QT. Like almost all the pioneers, Schrõdinger had trouble reconciling what his equations said with the intuitions he had developed while studying classical physics.
Gribbin has produced a lucid, well-researched biography. A physicist by training, Gribbin has extensively mined the quantum cat metaphor in the best-selling In Search of Schrõdingers Cat and Schrõdinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality.
Here, the focus is more on the scientific zeitgeist in the first half of the 20th century, rather than the science itself. But some scientific explanations are inevitable in any biography of Schrõdinger, and Gribbin is better than most at decoding QT arcana.
Appropriately enough, given that he coined “quantum entanglement”, Schrõdinger’s personal history is entangled with the history of physics. His contributions range widely across various domains of physics. His musings about mutations and the nature of life inspired Watson and Crick in the search for DNA. He was also among the first modern scientists to delve into Vedanta philosophy.
Schrõdinger was notably eccentric in his personal life. He had a habit of falling in love, often with very young women. He was caring enough for several of these infatuations to develop into long-term relationships. He and his wife Anny happily maintained an open marriage and a household best described as a “menage a plenty”. There were always various lovers floating around, often with respective spouses in tow.
Apart from indulging his sexual appetites, Schrõdinger loved trekking and swimming and led a physically active life despite recurrent tuberculosis. He dressed like a tramp. Once, he was denied entry to a scientific conference after arriving travel-stained, having hitch-hiked across Europe.
Quite apart from possessing a beautiful mind and an intrinsically fascinating personality, Schrõdinger also lived in tumultuous times. Events in his life mirror the chaos that engulfed Europe between 1914 and 1945, when the maps were redrawn multiple times.
He was born a prosperous upper-class citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He fought as an artillery officer in World War I. He survived the post-war horrors of starvation and hyper-inflation. In middle age, he fled the Nazis twice.
Those upheavals made him permanently insecure about pensions and tenure. He held posts in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, UK and Ireland while also spending long periods as a guest lecturer in several US institutions.
He was intimate with practically every contemporary scientist of note in a golden era. Paul Dirac once said it was easy for even a second-rate physicist to do first-rate work in the early years of QT.
The truth is: there was a lucky coincidence. New fields of research opened up as one extremely gifted generation was seamlessly replaced by another. Apart from the trinity of Bohr, Einstein and Planck, Dirac himself, Schrõdinger, De Broglie, Heisenberg, Pauli, the young Feynman, Fermi, Bose, et al, had overlapping careers. Their discoveries and dialogues fed off each other.
Scientists argue, sometimes with extreme prejudice and bitterness. QT is so inherently hard to reconcile what we see in the macro-world; it triggered some of the most interesting debates. It forced scientists to face philosophical questions of free-will and determinism.
Among other QT effects, particles “communicate” with each other at a distance through entanglement. They jump from one point to another without crossing intervening spaces. They behave like both waves and particles. It is impossible to compute both position and velocity of a particle at the same time. The act of observation changes quantum behaviour.
Schrõdinger and Einstein believed (in different ways) that the probabilistic nature of QT was an incomplete reflection of some underlying deterministic theme. Bohr disagreed. That resulted in much stimulating correspondence. The cat was dreamt up to show the apparent absurdity of Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation of collapsing wave-functions. But the alternate explanations of multiple universes and splitting timelines are no less weird.
Perhaps it takes strange minds to make sense of weirdness. Schrõdinger was hardly the only oddball among the QT pioneers. This is a well-told story of a fascinating man who lived through a period when political chaos and racism existed cheek-by-jowl with an astonishingly open academic environment.
ERWIN SCHRÕDINGER AND THE QUANTUM REVOLUTION