Updated: Aug 5
Author: Kavya Pullanoor
Did you know that without quantum mechanics, a field of science that studies the nature and behavior of tiny subatomic particles, devices like phones, computers, and even transistor radios would not be possible? Every day of your life, you are using technology that wouldn't be possible without quantum mechanics. Beyond that, quantum physics also studies the fundamental nature of reality, and is responsible for much of our current understanding of the universe. Our understanding of how the world really works was being quickly transformed by the work of a few scientists scattered around the world, starting from the early twentieth century. People were just beginning to study quantum mechanics. Erwin Schrodinger was one such person. This Austrian-born physicist is responsible for discovering the equation that is the foundation of modern quantum mechanics, and has revolutionized forever the way we look at the world.
Figure 1: Erwin Schrodinger. [Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/images/schrodinger-12988-portrait-medium.jpg.]
Life and Work
Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrodinger was born in Austria’s capital city, Vienna, on August 12, 1887. His father was Rudolf Schrodinger, a botanist. His mother was Georgine Bauer, the daughter of a chemistry professor. Erwin was their only child. He was a gifted student in the local gymnasium. His strengths and interests lay not only in the physics and math courses that he mastered with effortless enjoyment, but also in languages, both ancient and modern, as well as poetry.
Schrodinger was educated at home until he was eleven years old and he learned to speak both German and English from an early age. Later, he enrolled at the University of Vienna and earned his Ph.D. degree in physics in 1910. After graduation, he stayed in Vienna and worked as an assistant to one of his professors, Franz Exner, until the beginning of World War I. Upon returning to civilian life, Schrodinger married Annemarie Bertel in 1920. He also took on a number of faculty/staff positions at places like the University of Stuttgart, the University of Jena and the University of Breslau, before joining the University of Zurich in 1921.
The Schrodinger wave equation
Schrodinger's tenure as a professor at the University of Zurich over the next six years would prove to be one of the most important periods of his physics career. Immersing himself in an array of theoretical physics research, Schrodinger came upon the work of fellow physicist - Louis de Broglie - in 1925. In his 1924 thesis, de Broglie had proposed a theory of wave mechanics. According to de Broglie, matter exhibits both particle and wave properties. This sparked Schrodinger's interest in explaining that an electron in an atom would move as a wave. The following year, he wrote a revolutionary paper that highlighted what would be known as the Schrodinger wave equation. The wave equation makes it possible to calculate the energy levels of electrons in an atom, thus solving one of the great problems in quantum physics.
Figure 2: Schrodinger's wave equation.
Nobel Prize in physics
After Schrodinger’s wave equation, nothing in the world of physics was the same again. The dispute as to whether quantum objects such as electrons, atoms, or molecules were waves or particles was settled. In a surprising fashion, however, physicists realized that electrons could have the properties of either waves or particles, but are neither the one nor the other; their state can be calculated only with a degree of probability. For his discovery, Erwin Schrodinger was awarded the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with another great physicist, Paul Dirac.
Figure 3: Schrodinger's 1933 Nobel in physics, received jointly with Dirac. [Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2019/03/schrodinger-diploma.jpg.]
Interests other than physics
Schrodinger had a very great interest in philosophy and consciousness. He was inspired by philosophers like Schopenhauer and Spinoza. His graounbreaking book, titled "What is Life?", inspired Watson and Crick's work on DNA. Thus, Schrodinger's contributions to biology remains equally important. Apart from physics and philosophy, Schrodinger also had a deep interest in psychology. He published a lot of work in the field of color perception and colorimetry. One of his most notable papers in this field is titled "Theory of Pigments with Highest Luminosity." He has been honored in a lot of ways for his contributions to physics. He is referred to as "the father of quantum mechanics" and has a university named after him in Vienna. Apart from this, he has received the Max Planck Medal and has been elected as a Foreign Member of the Royal Family. He also has a large crater named after him on the far side of the moon.
Schrodinger later became doubtful of his own work, and formulated his famous thought experiment known as "Schrodinger's cat". Schrodinger's cat sparked a lot of new interpretations in quantum mechanics and modern physics. The philosophical implications of his thought experiment is debated even today.
Happy birthday, Schrodinger!