Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger by Chrisopher Smith
Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian theoretical physicist who shared the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physics with the British physicist Paul Dirac. He was born on this day in 1887 and he resided in Ireland from 1940 to 1955.

Erwin Schrödinger was born on August 12, 1887 in Vienna, the only child of Rudolf Schrödinger, who was married to a daughter of Alexander Bauer, his Professor of Chemistry at the Technical College of Vienna. Erwin's father came from a Bavarian family which generations before had settled in Vienna. Having successful obtained a broad education, Schrödinger went on to study theoretical physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Vienna from 1906 to 1910. It was Fritz Hasenöhrl's lectures on theoretical physics which had the greatest influence on Schrödinger. He graduated in 1910 but then took up voluntary military service.

In 1914 Schrödinger's first important paper was published developing ideas of Boltzmann. However, with the outbreak of World War I, Schrödinger received orders to take up duty on the Italian border. His time of active service was not wasted as far as research was concerned, however, for he continued his theoretical work, submitting another paper from his position on the Italian front. In 1915 he was transferred to duty in Hungary and from there he submitted further papers for publication. After being sent back to the Italian front, Schrödinger received a citation for outstanding service commanding a battery during a battle.

In the 1921 he took up a lecturing post at the University of Zurich. There, in a six-month period in 1926 he produced the papers that gave the foundations of quantum wave mechanics. In those papers he described his partial differential equation that is the basic equation of quantum mechanics and bears the same relation to the mechanics of the atom as Newton's equations of motion bear to planetary astronomy. Schrödinger's wave equation, was made at the end of this epoch-during the first half of 1926. It came as a result of his dissatisfaction with the quantum condition in Bohr's orbit theory and his belief that atomic spectra should really be determined by some kind of eigenvalue problem. For this work he shared the Nobel Prize for Physic with Paul Dirac in 1933.

In 1927 Schrödinger accepted an invitation to succeed Max Planck, the inventor of the quantum hypothesis, at the University of Berlin, and he joined an extremely distinguished faculty that included Albert Einstein. He remained at the university until 1933, at which time he reached the decision that he could no longer live in a country in which the persecution of Jews had become a national policy. He then began a seven-year odyssey that took him to Austria, Great Britain, Belgium, the Pontifical Academy of Science in Rome and finally, in 1940, to Ireland,where he acted as head of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, founded under the influence of President Eamon de Valera, who had been a mathematician before turning to politics.

Schrödinger remained in Ireland for the next 15 years (officially becoming an Irish citizen), doing research both in physics and in the philosophy and history of science. During this period he wrote What Is Life? (1944), an attempt to show how quantum physics can be used to explain the stability of genetic structure. Although much of what Schrödinger had to say in this book has been modified and amplified by later developments in molecular biology, his book remains one of the most useful and profound introductions to the subject.

After his retirement in 1956 he returned to an honoured position in Vienna. He died on the 4th of January, 1961, after a long illness, survived by his faithful companion, Annemarie Bertel, whom he married in 1920.

Image Acknowledgement: The portrait of Erwin Schrödinger used in this article was painted by Christopher Smith from Trinity College's School of Physics in 1997. The portrait can be found in the School of Physics in Trinity College Dublin, in the Fitzgerald building outside the Schrödinger lecture theatre on the 2nd floor. Many thanks to Mr. Smith for allowing use the image for this post.


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