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Born: 1887, Vienna, Austria

Died: 1961, Alpbach, Austria

Major Works: Collected Papers on Wave Mechanics (1928), Science and Humanism: Physics in our Times (1951), Nature and the Greeks (1954)

Major Ideas

Partial differential equations representing wave phenomena best describe action on the atomic level.

Quantum physics can explain the persistence and the spontaneous mutation of genetic material.

The Hindu philosophy of Vedanta best matches the insights of modern physics.

Erwin Schrodinger worked not only on theoretical physics, including thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and general relativity, but also on the philosophy and history of science. Fluent in four languages and an avid writer of poetry, he was a tireless popularizer of modern physics and its application to epistemology and to the discovery of the relationship between mind and matter. He deplored narrow specialization and valued science as a way of synthesizing all knowledge and answering the question, "Who are we?"

Schrodinger's father, a well-to-do manufacturer with scientific interests (he had published articles on plant genetics) was the primary influence on his young son. Schrodinger did not attend public elementary school, but was educated at home, entering the Gymnasium at age twelve. After the usual classical education, he attended the University of Vienna, where he began his studies in theoretical physics under Friedrich Hasenorl and Franz Exner. He served in World War I as an artillery officer on the Italian Front. In 1921, he accepted the chair of physics at Zurich, which had been held by Einstein. During the Zurich period, he wrote papers on a wide range of topics in physics: statistical thermodynamics (the branch of physics that links the micro-world of atoms and molecules and the macro-world of solids, liquids, and gases), the kinetics of gases, vibrations in crystal lattices, the theory of specific heats and general relativity. In 1926-27, just before leaving Zurich, he completed a famous series of papers on wave mechanics, his chief contribution to physics.

Wave mechanics is one formulation of the laws of quantum mechanics. Quantum theory began in the early 1900s with the investigations by Max Planck, who determined that energy (light, radiation, heat) on the atomic level is emitted not in an infinitely divisible range of values but in discrete packets, called quanta (singular quantum), the value of which is called h or Planck's constant. Energy comes in "bits"; it is not a continuum. Planck did not explain the physical reality underlying his constant. This was done by Niels Bohr, who showed that atoms are composed of heavy, positively charged nuclei with light, negatively charged electrons revolving around them like a miniature solar system. In 1913, Bohr published his theory of the spectrum of hydrogen: An electron of any atom can be in any one of a series of energetic states; when it passes from one state to another, it absorbs or emits a quantum of energy equal to a multiple of h. By the 1920s, difficulties were arising with Bohr's theory: Noninteger values for the energy emitted were found and the values for helium did not match the theory developed using hydrogen. In 1926, several new approaches attacked these difficulties and established modern quantum mechanics. Among these were Schrodinger's wave mechanics and Heisenberg's matrix theory.

Schrodinger was inspired by the French physicist Louis De Broglie, who suggested that elementary particles have associated with them waves whose frequency is a multiple of h. De Broglie attempted to unite the wave and particle theory of light and matter but was not able to derive the equations describing his matter waves. This was left for Schrodinger.

Schrodinger postulated that a physical system (matter and/or energy) is a continuum that has wave properties. Each system has its own proper vibration, the frequency of which is the basic physical entity Matter is analogous to light, both exhibiting at the same time wave phenomena (interference patterns, refraction) and particle phenomena (most obvious in the tracks seen in cloud chambers). In the atom, some wavelengths are possible; others are not. This explains Bohr's quantum values for the electron: Depending on the atom, only specific values are possible. It was quickly recognized that Schrodinger's wave equations were logically equivalent to Heisenberg's matrix mechanics--and were much easier to use--and with this recognition, wave equations became part of modern quantum mechanics.

Schrodinger immediately became famous in the world of physics, and when Max Planck retired from the chair of theoretical physics in Berlin, the scientific center of the world, Schrodinger was invited to replace him.

Schrodinger stayed in Berlin, writing on quantum mechanics, relativity, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle until Hitler became chancellor in 1933, when Schrodinger moved to Oxford. He was virtually the only non-Jewish scientist to flee the Nazis. Immediately on his arrival, he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize in physics for 1933. Homesick, he returned to Austria in 1936, but with the Anschluss (German annexation of Austria) in 1938, he fled to Rome, then Dublin, where, in 1940, he became director of the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. He remained at the Institute for seventeen years, a most productive period for his philosophical thought.

During his stay in Dublin, he did further work on wave mechanics and cosmology, and (like Einstein) unsuccessfully attempted to develop a unified field theory that would link electromagnetism and gravity. However, his best-known works from this period are his studies on the foundations of physics and their implications for philosophy. He was hostile to the positivism illustrated by Ernst Mach's definition of science: "A description of the facts, with the maximum of completeness and the maximum economy of thought." Schrodinger considered such a goal to be banal, incapable of keeping the work of research going. From his early years, he had felt the need of a metaphysics of science, a term he used in several senses, but chiefly as his name for experiences that give clues about the nature of reality: value judgments, philosophical wonder, puzzle-solving, an awareness of "relationships which have never ... been grasped either by formal logic or by exact science ... relationships which keep forcing us back toward metaphysics, that is, toward something that transcends what is directly accessible to experience." Metaphysics was for him the indispensable basis of knowledge.

Like many German and Austrian scientists, Schrodinger considered himself a philosopher--indeed, he may have viewed his philosophy as more significant than his physics. He was particularly interested in two problems that address the bases of scientific thought: comprehensibility, the hypothesis that physical reality can be understood by men acting in common, that things happen in processes governed by natural law; and objectivation, the removal of the observing self from the world that is studied. The former, of course, has been part of science since the Greeks, but Schrodinger was specifically reacting to the belief that matter on the atomic level is basically incomprehensible.

Schrodinger recognized that events/particles on the atomic level have a probabilistic and indeterminate nature: They cannot be observed directly nor can the positions of individual particles be determined; cause and effect do not apply to them. But unlike Heisenberg, Schrodinger believed that this indeterminate nature has nothing to do with any basic uncertainty in the subject-object relationships familiar in our everyday experience. He burlesqued the uncertainty principle in his well-known paradox of the cat. Imagine a cat shut in a steel box along with a Geiger counter, a small radioactive mass, a hammer, and a bottle of cyanide. The radioactive mass is so little that in the course of an hour, there will be a 50-50 chance of one atom disintegrating, at which time the Geiger counter will respond, trip the hammer, which will then break the bottle and kill the cat. The uncertainty principle correctly states that the disintegration of one atom cannot be predicted calculated, or even known. However, at the end of this experiment one can see with no uncertainty if the cat is alive or dead: An atomic uncertainty is transformed into a macroscopic uncertainty which can then be resolved by looking in the box. This experiment warns us against considering the uncertainty principle as an image of everyday reality. In short, our difficulties in observing on the atomic level do not preclude an accurate model from which predictions and calculations can be made--indeed, Schrodinger considered his wave mechanics to be such a model.

Objectivation, the belief that nature must be put "out there" in order to be examined, is another basis of conventional science. In fact, comprehensibility makes no sense if objectivation is not done. If the subject/observer becomes part of the objects observed, then each observer must see something different and comprehensibility will fail. This principle makes comprehension of the self a contradictory notion: The observer would be observing himself. Therefore, for the study of the self, of "who we are," of the point of contact of mind and matter, comprehensibility and objectivation must be modified.

In Nature and the Greeks, Schrodinger studied early Greek thinkers to determine the origin of comprehensibility and objectivation in order to determine where the difficulties with these concepts arose. He continued these investigations in Mind and Matter and My View of the World, concentrating particularly on the relationship between mind and matter: "Is there a world apart from my perception of it?" As a philosopher with a mystic bent, Schrodinger opted for an answer found in Vedanta (Hindu philosophy had attracted him from his youth): The world is the perceiving mind; the Self is universal and identical with the world; the plurality of individuals is an illusion. He traced this thought not only in the Upanishads, but also in Plato's universal Forms and Einstein's theory that time is relative to our frame of reference.

Among Schrodinger's contributions to science during his Dublin period was What Is Life? (1944), in which he applied physics to the problems of biology and made the suggestion that the chromosome is nothing but a message written in code. A few years later, this book inspired the DNA researches of James Watson and Francis Crick.

Schrodinger returned to Austria in 1956, when he was given his own chair at the University of Vienna. After a period of ill health, he died in 1961.

Further Reading

Moore, Walter. Schrodinger: Life and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. The standard treatment of Schrodinger's life. The author is a physical chemist, and thus competent to treat the science part of this biography. He had access to sources that were not available to--or not used by--Scott (below).

Scott, William T. Erwin Schrodinger: An Introduction to his Writings. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1967. Though superseded by Moore, Scott is valuable for his description of Schrodinger's philosophy.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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