Friday, 19 June 2015

A Shaggy Dog

… even boffins like to let their hair down sometimes (though, with Foucault, that’s more your figure of speech)

The great academicians and artists don’t spend their whole lives peering down microscopes or deep into outer space or even simply trying to dream up some radically new form of expression that will be misunderstood by the whole world ever afterwards. So A Shaggy Dog proposes to take an imaginative delve into what it might be exactly that they get up to when the lab coats are off and the brushes laid down, how they pass their time, what stories they tell, and what gags and capers they amuse themselves with. Remember, though: A Shaggy Dog should be ingested in a super-saturated saline solution – “cum grano salis” as Pliny never said (what he actually wrote was “addito salis grano,”of course, which is a completely different box of frogs altogether) – and, rather like News International, perhaps you shouldn’t believe absolutely all that you’re told. And now, our very first guest …

Erwin Schrödinger
Like many another outstanding physicist, both before and after him, Schrödinger is perhaps not best remembered for his comedic work, which is a great shame and very much posterity’s loss, seeing he could bang them out like the best of ‘em, once the mood was upon him, though, quite often, you needed to hear them in their original German phraseology in order to catch all their subtle nuances, which can disappear like sub-atomic particles into the ether during the translation process. It has already been well documented as to how his skill as a gifted cracksman and gagster was refined in tandem with his scientific development from a very tender age, and this has often been ascribed to his early interest in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century German philosopher who penned the major work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (in which, you’ll recall, he argued that the phenomenal world is driven by a metaphysical will that perpetually and malignantly seeks satiation) but Schopenhauer was also a comic genius hailed throughout most of Europe at that time as Father of the Knock Knock Construct, which he created in order “to examine the nature of epistemology and experience in the phenomenal world” (see On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in which he expounds about how the four line model of the Knock Knock format echoes this theory, building steadily up to and then explosively revealing, in its fifth (“endgültig”) line, the phenomenology that underpins it, in what has now become known as the “punchline”). This approach, at our remove and in such a modern and much-changed world, may now appear formulaic or even hackneyed but, in Schopenhauer’s day, it was lauded as one of the greatest ever breakthroughs in existential philosophical reasoning. In order to understand fully how this achievement came about, it is necessary to return once again to the native German, in which we can best see how it was the language itself that was partly responsible for its creation: knock knock in German being Schlagschlag, of course, which doesn’t say much for the Teutonic ability to come up with convincing onomatopoeia, perhaps, but stick with it for now. Thus the process (or “argument,” as Schopenhauer would term it) always opened with the jinglingly singsong lines of: “Schlagschlag.” “Wer ist da?” and so on, down to the “fifth postulation,” as it became known, which strikingly illustrated, via its absurdity, his pet hypothesis that “human desire is futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so is all human action in the world.”

 By September 1858, only two years before his death, he had come up with what he believed was the perfect example of the genre and, indeed, so confident was he of this that he left instructions in his will for a fund to be set up that would award the Schopenhauer Prize of some thirty five thousand marks to any practising philosopher who could come up with a better one and support his claim through reasoned argument and empirical logic. The Prize (never won, incidentally) became so sought after and desired that, by 1902, the Germanic intelligentsia had closed ranks entirely and shrouded even the name itself into densest obscurity, which is why we so rarely hear of its existence today. Though we still have Schopenhauer’s Paragon, the end of which has been translated into English here to make it slightly easier to comprehend:


“Wer ist da?”


“Aitch who?”


As a dedicated disciple and almost evangelical admirer of Schopenhauer and his work, the young Schrödinger yearned to emulate, and even perhaps someday to outstrip, his acknowledged master by assembling a carefully thought-out work of his own that would prove worthy to stand beside that which had fallen from the mighty pen of the great man all those years ago. Thus it was that a good deal of precious time, during his early formative period and throughout all his student days in Vienna, was lost upon futile and often desperate attempts to construct or create a rival Schlagschlag piece as perfect and as valid as the Schopenhauer exemplar had proven, the one that now goaded him ever onward in his search, but only and always into blind alleys and darkened corners from which he could not reason his way out. One dismal night, it is said, just as the clock on the tower of the Kapuzinerkirche was striking the knell of three, his mind made a quantum leap (which, as we all know, is a very small one indeed) to the startling conclusion that the struggle had been, right from the outset, an utterly unequal one and that Schlagschlag was simply not his medium or doctrine. During the weeks that followed, he came to the slow realisation that his future lay not there with Schopenhauer but elsewhere, more in the role of a tale-teller and anecdotist, recounting incidents of observed reality with a sound basis in known and substantiated fact which, by a happy stroke of fortune, would also allow him a bit more time for popping down to the old laboratory and cracking on with some of that sciencey stuff he was supposed to be doing. There was no real eureka moment as such in all this, though there was a distinct and definitive moment that changed his way of thinking forever, as he later recounted in his autobiography, Sie Nur Daran Erinnern die Verdammten Katze.

During the darkest period of his struggle with Schlagschlag Theory, he was much given to escaping into his powerful car and simply letting it take him (and his tortured thinking) wherever it would, even though, on this particular night, he should have been preparing himself to address the distinguished members of the Konferenz der größten Narren an Deutschen Wissenschaftsphilosophiebekannt at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin the following afternoon. Instead, here he was, cruising the streets of Vienna as if nothing mattered much anymore. After a while, Schrödinger relates how he noticed that there was another vehicle right behind, that also, as far as he could recall, seemed to have been following for some significant time now. With Vienna of that time being no place in which to take chances, he waited for the road to clear a little in front of him and then booted his foot down to the firewall, leaving the smell of burning rubber flailing in his wake. Sharp right. Then sharp left. Then sharp left again. And then he eased back down again to a regular speed. Only to discover that not only were the same lights still in hot pursuit but that, an instant later, they would erupt into the dreaded flashing blue and na-na, na-na-ing as a police car swept past waving him in towards the pavement. Helpless, Schrödinger watched as the car pulled up ahead, the way they do, so’s you always get a good long view of Plod as he clambers out and swaggers towards you, buckling on his sarcasm as he comes to lean his head in the window.

‘Good evening, sir,’ the officer is said to have remarked. ‘Would you mind telling me where the fire is, sir?’ Police officers, especially those that end up on traffic duties, must go through special training to achieve that honed edge of sneering contempt that they seem able to imbue a simple word like “sir” with. Schrödinger thought it politic to say nothing as yet, so the burly constable then requested him to “step out of your vehicle for me, if you wouldn’t mind, sir.” Schrödinger naturally complied at once and then readily supplied his name when asked.

‘And what is it you do, might we ask, Mr Schrödinger?’ continued the uniformed fellow, raising a dubious eyebrow at the given response, before adding, “Oh, I see, sir – we’re a particle physicist, are we? And what, if you don’t mind us asking, might you have in your boot just now?” Of course, our Erwin gets a tad edgy at this development and, by way of explanation, repeats that he’s a particle physicist and what he happens to have in the boot of his car right at this moment is … well … there’s a flask of deadly poison, a small amount of radioactive material, a Geiger counter and – and – and a cat.

‘Is that so, sir?’ says the officer of the law, entirely undaunted. ‘We’ve been following you for some time, sir, as you were no doubt aware when you attempted to abscond just now. There can’t have been all that much air in that small boot of yours to begin with for poor old puss to be breathing, so there can be hardly any left at all by now. Wouldn’t you agree, sir?’

By now, Schrödinger can see where all this is leading and knows all too well what’s coming next …

‘So, what would you say, sir?’ the officer enquires innocuously. ‘That cat of yours – is it still alive? Or is it dead?’

The answer that Schrödinger furnished them with, honest though it was, earned him a night in the cells for being facetious to a police officer. However, by the time they threw him out bleary-eyed into the first pearly grey light of dawn (which they do on purpose, so the buses haven’t started running yet and you’re forced to leg it to wherever you’re headed) he had had time enough to contemplate and then to realise (as we all do after, but only after, such mishap situations) that there was something decidedly amusing in the whole escapade and wasn’t it precisely the sort of ice-breaker of a story he needed with which to thaw the lofty brows of the worthies at the Konferenz der größten Narren later that day? But, barely had he gone another two paces than another thought struck him like a thunderbolt out of the blue.

‘Hang it all!’ he cried aloud. ‘With a little tinkering and manipulation, this cat idea could be the very thing to enormously advance our entire thinking on quantum mechanics and to finally bring crashing down into the dust that wretched Copenhagen Interpretation and the jokers that came up with it in the first place.’ And, as we all know, that’s precisely what he did. In the end, the story he did launch his Konferenz address with would become his signature anecdote and what we most remember Schrödinger for today. If you visit the little Catholic cemetery in Alpbach, Austria, where he’s buried, you may care to buy one of the postcards dedicated to him that they sell at the stall outside. On one side is the famous Schrödinger's Quantum Mechanical Wave Equation, though nobody ever has a clue as to what he was on about there, so turn it straight over and you’ll find Schrödinger’s Paragon, the tale he told to Konferenz all those years ago which, oddly enough, features not a cat but a dog. And it’s this:

This takes us back to the time when Erwin and Annemarie (Anny) Bertel were first married and loved nothing better than to spend an evening at the cinema, watching the latest releases. On the night in question, they were somewhat taken aback to see, sitting a few seats to their left, a markedly elderly gentleman with, next to him, what appeared to be his dog. This was not really the done thing, even in those days, but their amour was young still and they were happy and contented enough, so they said nothing and waited for the lights to go down. No sooner did the expected event occur and the images began to flicker silver on the screen than they couldn’t help but notice the behaviour of the dog, who was sat on the very edge of his seat and watching the film intently. During the lighter scenes and the romantic ones, it wagged its tail slowly but happily but, come the sadder moments when tragedy seemed imminent, they heard it whimpering plaintively, its eyes misty and blurred. Suddenly, there was a terrifying incident, shocking and startling, at which the dog took refuge under its chair to watch from safety until it passed, when it resumed its seat once more, watching each moment avidly until the credits finally rolled and the lights came up, at which it gave an almost inaudible bark of utmost approval before clambering down and making its way to the exits, its tail still wagging with indisputable pleasure.

As Erwin and Anny emerged out onto the darkening Berlin streets afterwards, the first thing they saw was the same dog again, standing passively behind his aged and bent owner who, at that moment was attempting to light his pipe in a particularly strong wind. If Schrödinger had one failing, it was his insatiable curiosity and so, without a second thought, he stepped briskly across and greeted his erstwhile companion heartily, as is the German way. And then:

‘Excuse me saying so,’ said Schrödinger (rather excitedly for such a boffin, it has to be said), ‘but my wife and I really couldn’t believe just how much your dog seemed to enjoy the film just now.’

‘Nor could I,’ replied the old gentleman, calmly puffing on his pipe. ‘He didn’t like the book at all.’

Schrodinger: By Nobel foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Schopenhauer: By Jules Lunteschütz (1822–1893) (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Keystone Cops: By Mack Sennett Studios [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Young Schrodinger: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Grave: By User: Karl Gruber (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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