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 …
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?”
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:
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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons