Friday, 18 July 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Erwin Schrödinger (12 August 1887 – 4 January 1961)

Schrödinger was a Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist who worked in the field of quantum theory, out of which he developed wave mechanics and a complex equation that still bears his name, wrote numerous works on various areas of physics, such as: statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, physics of dielectrics, colour theory, electrodynamics, general relativity, and cosmology and, in addition to all that, he also made several attempts to construct a unified field theory. And yet, despite such achievements, the very second his name gets mentioned, what happens? It’s as if a light comes on inside our heads, a bell rings and then, before you know it, those two familiar and oh-so-weary words have sprung instantaneously and unbidden into our minds. Come on now, admit it, you just did exactly the same yourself as soon as you saw his name, didn’t you? We all did, each and every one of us, just as if the imperious Pavlov himself was ringing the bell with all his main and might, because we just can’t help ourselves, can we? No sooner has the Schrödinger surname put in an appearance than there we are, thinking to ourselves in our smug and complacent fashion: oh yeah, Schrödinger’s Cat. Thus relegating the great man of physics and his lifetime’s career in scientific research and discovery to some goodly way below the status now enjoyed by his own moggie.

When it comes down to it, the case is not one whit different when it’s good old Pavlov getting the treatment instead and, much as with Schrödinger, there will be more than a few of us here who didn’t even have the faintest notion of what his first name might have been – well, except for the physiologists and one or two of the better-briefed biologists, that is: they’re the ones sitting there now with their arms folded petulantly, glowering as bleakly as a weekend in Bournemouth and muttering darkly that, “I knew that! Of course I knew that! It’s not rocket science, when all said and done.”

Indeed it is not, it is physiology but, for the uninformed of us, he was called (well, you probably could’ve guessed, given his undoubted Russianness) Ivan: Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, another Nobel Prize winner with an outstanding body of work behind him, and what do we do to him? Pavlov’s Dogs, that’s what. The sound you hear now is that of Pavlov’s reputation plummeting beneath that of his wretched dogs, whose fame is based entirely on the fact that, every time he rang a bell, they would start salivating. And even the physiologists themselves, if they do ever manage to rise above that dreary cliché, will then, inevitably and ineluctably, fall to arguing amongst themselves whether or not it was actually a bell he used as stimulus, suggestions as to an alternative ranging from a buzzer or metronome, electric shocks, whistles, tuning forks, and even visual stimuli, though it seems he definitely did use a bell amongst them.

But, before we all start thinking, Poor Old Pavlov, what a bad deal the old duffer got, let’s remember that he “externalised” the saliva glands of his dogs (brought them onto the outside) so he could collect the saliva and see how much there was (as in the picture, from The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan), thus depriving the dogs of it, even though the enzymes in saliva are essential in the process of digestion. For all his attempts to base his image on that of an offduty Santa Claus, he carried out precisely the same surgical procedure on children too …

Actually, there is one essential difference between Pavlov and Schrödinger, which is that, in the case of Pavlov, his dogs were real ones, so much so that one of the poor devils ended up stuffed (rather unconvincingly, perhaps) in the museum of his hometown (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was from Ryazan also, though he evaded the taxidermist), whereas Schrödinger’s Cat was no more than a product of his own febrile imagination, an eidolon that would haunt him down through time. But he did have a cat, an actual one, called Merlin, though you’d suspect it had an innate fear of enclosed spaces and something approaching phobia when it came to sealed boxes. Of course, we should not be talking about the non-existent-and-never-did Schrödinger’s Cat at all but of The Schrödinger’s Cat Theory (or the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment), which was where the misunderstanding got started.

You might not think it, but this actually gives him a link with someone as unlikely as King Canute but, once again, careful with your Pavlovian reactions to that particular name! For a start off, his name is more properly Cnut or, for the purists, Knoet, and he has been described as "the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history" (he wasn’t Anglo-Saxon either). What he is mainly remembered for is being the king that thought himself so high and mighty that he could even order the sea “not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord,” though the sea was having none of it, gave him a soaking for his trouble and got him written down into the pages of history as a bit of a ninny. But that’s not how it was at all. Any of you who imagined and believed it was, well, you want your glands externalising. It was exactly the opposite, in fact, it being the royal court who said the King could command the sea, and Cnut just went along with it in order to prove precisely how wrong they were. Same thing exactly with Schrödinger: at the first mention of that (imaginary) cat and that box (imaginary also), people stop listening altogether and go off with some halfbaked notion that Erwin claimed that, because we don’t know if the molecule has decayed or if the poison has been released, then the cat is both dead and alive at the same time until the box gets opened and we peek inside. No! What he was saying, just like Cnut before him, was the exact opposite of that (that common sense tells us that the cat must be either dead or alive, though most probably suffocated, seeing it was a sealed box) and what he was doing was simply pointing out the absurd flaws in somebody else’s crackpot theory, in this case the Copenhagen Interpretation. Sorry to keep banging on like a demented particle physicist (is there any other sort?) but, well, it makes you want to spit, really it does.

But let’s at least get the poor chap born first, shall we? Which happened on 12 August 1887 in Vienna, to a don’t really know, not quite sure, can’t make our minds up kind of a family, what we’d refer to nowadays as LibDems. His father, Rudolph, couldn’t choose between owning a lino factory and being a botanist and was Catholic too into the bargain; whilst his mother was the half Austrian, half English daughter of a Chemistry Professor and something of a Lutheran. This admixture of a little of everything may well explain why they decided to saddle him with the names of Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger, not that it matters much, seeing nobody ever remembers any of them, thanks to that Cat. Erwin himself turned out an atheist. Between 1906 and 1910, he was studying under pioneering and influential physicist, Franz S. Exner, and by 1911 had become his assistant, the first of a number of distinguished names in whose footsteps he would follow.

After the War, in which he served in the Austrian Fortress Artillery, he became assistant to Max Wien, a "moderately anti-semitic" (as Schrödinger described him) German physicist, before attaining an Associate Professorship in Stuttgart in 1920 (where, on 6 April, he married Annemarie (Anny) Bertel), though by 1921 he was in Poland as a full Professor, globetrotting being the done thing for our Erwin in those days, it would seem. Very much so because, in 1927, he found himself at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, having succeeded no less a figure than Max Planck, famous for his Planck Density (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the phrase, “thick as a Planck” but involves something along the lines of the Universe weighing roughly 1093 grams per cubic centimetre at Planck Time – if anyone understands that, please write in). 

Despite his atheism, by 1934 he’d got a bit fed up with the Nazi’s anti-semitism and once again hit the road, ending up as a Fellow of Magdalen College and receiving the Nobel Prize together with Paul Dirac. Things weren’t destined to work out in Oxford, however, as they got a bit sniffy about the fact that he wanted to set up house with his wife and his mistress, not to mention Milton the Cat too, which was all a bit much in those days. No doubt some perisher would’ve remarked that, “we’d best keep an eye on that particular beggar because, as sure as x is x (obviously an educated man, to know the true turn of phrase), he’ll be having one of ‘em sealed up in box, and I wouldn’t put it past the likes of him for it to be that cat of hissen, neither.” At which, his (even better educated) companion may possibly have remarked that, “that’s as maybe, but the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment won’t actually be thought up until next year, will it?” So, from there, it was off to lecture at Princetown University, where he was offered a permanent position but, when the Devonians proved even more haughtily snooty about his living arrangements than the folk in Oxford, that scuppered that. On to the University of Edinburgh (visa delays preventing him this time), followed by the University of Graz, where he took up his post in 1936. It was during all this to-ing and fro-ing, and after extensive correspondence with Albert Einstein, that he came up with his infamous Cat Theory. Think of that: if Einstein had just got himself that little bit more involved with the project, we might now be saying, “Albert Einstein? That’s that Cat Bloke, isn’t it?”

Even in Graz things didn’t run smoothly and, after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Germany) of March 1938, the Nazis got onto Schrödinger’s case for his having expressed opposition to them and then doing a runner. So Erwin issued a statement of recantation (the hand-burning Cranmer did exactly the same thing in the face of extreme terror) but, like Cranmer, he later came to recant his recantation, even apologizing personally to Einstein for having recanted in the first place. Not that it made any difference: the University of Graz sacked him anyway, for “political unreliability.” He then fled to Italy. That same year, Éamon de Valera issued a personal invitation to him to come and live in Ireland and establish an Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin, which was accepted and there he stayed for the next seventeen years, bringing to an end at last all his restless wanderings, becoming an Irish citizen by 1948 (though retaining his Austrian one). Schrödinger stayed in Dublin until retiring in 1955, though it seems he was up to his old tricks again during that time, rumour suggesting that he may have fathered two illegitimate children by two separate women, possibly even students of his.

On 4 January 1961, Schrödinger died in Vienna at the age of 73 of the tuberculosis he had been afflicted with most of his life. Anny, his longsuffering wife, lived on until 3 October 1965. The fate of Milton the Cat is unknown, as is the name of his infamous mistress or what became of her. Schrödinger's quantum mechanical wave function is inscribed on his grave. As is always the way with scientists of high achievement, they bunged his image onto the money, in this case onto the Austrian 1000-Schilling banknote, the second-highest denomination. Bet it was that wretched Cat that got featured on the highest one …

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