Erwin Schrödinger - 50 Years After

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Sign up for Nature Briefing. Close banner Close. Yet, until this flurry of activity, Schrodinger was nothing more than a competent, undistinguished physicist who had revealed no hint of his extraordinary brilliance early in his career. After his great discovery, he never again exhibited this brilliance. And in the 's world of theoretical physics in which collaboration was the norm, Schrodinger chose to work alone.

Moreover, he had no love for the branch of physics he had saved. He was the Lone Ranger of quantum mechanics - a stranger who rode into town, saw a problem, solved it, then virtually rode away from it all. Walter Moore has written an admirable book about this intriguing man. Moore, an emeritus professor of physical chemistry at the University of Sydney, Australia, and the author of the textbook ''Physical Chemistry,'' sets out to do more than chronicle Schrodinger's life and work.

  1. ISBN 13: 9783901249174.
  3. Champagne Charlie?

He attempts to find the roots of genius in a man's life; in this case, he is searching for the secret behind the greatest six-month burst of creativity in scientific history. By quantum theory had already modified, if not supplanted, the classical Newtonian view that everything was a continuum: that energy could be emitted in an infinite range of amounts, that light undulated in continuous waves, and so forth. Quantum theory, on the other hand, held that everything is quantized, or expressed in multiples of a basic unit.

Energy and matter are distributed in discrete amounts; you must have multiples of certain minimum quantities. The universe is lumpy - a pile of rice as opposed to a scoop of mashed potatoes. Niels Bohr had extrapolated this theory to the arena of the atom.


The electrons in an atom, he said, occupy quantized orbits. They can leap from one fixed orbit to another, but may not rest between these states. This made the theorists uneasy. Where, for instance, do the electrons go between orbits? And what are the rules that govern their quantum leaps?

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Enter Werner Heisenberg, at the age of 24 already considered, next to Einstein, the most brilliant physicist in the world. Heisenberg, with help from Max Born and Pascual Jordan, came up with a matrix theory, which supposedly explained the travels of the electron by a complex form of mathematics called matrices. There remained some problems, however. Heisenberg's solution did not allow one to visualize what was happening inside the atom. Also, the smartest physicists in the world found the equations impossible to solve. Along came Louis de Broglie.

This young French physicist presented a most unusual thesis for his doctoral degree at the University of Paris. He put forth the proposition that, at certain velocities, an electron behaves more like a wave than a particle. De Broglie's thesis examiners couldn't make head or tail out of this concept and neither could most theorists, with the exception of two: Albert Einstein, who applauded it, and Erwin Schrodinger, who exploited it.

A few days before Christmas, , Schrodinger, a Viennese-born professor of physics at the University of Zurich, took off for a two-and-a-half-week vacation at a villa in the Swiss Alpine town of Arosa. Leaving his wife in Zurich, he took along de Broglie's thesis, an old Viennese girlfriend whose identity remains a mystery and two pearls. Placing a pearl in each ear to screen out any distracting noise, and the woman in bed for inspiration, Schrodinger set to work on wave mechanics.

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When he and the mystery lady emerged from the rigors of their holiday on Jan. Schrodinger's wave equation, published only a few weeks later, was immediately accepted as ''a mathematical tool of unprecedented power in dealing with problems of the structure of matter,'' according to Mr. By , more than , scientific papers had appeared based on the application of the equation. Schrodinger lavishly thanked his physicist friend Hermann Weyl for his help with the mathematics.

He was perhaps indebted to Weyl for an even greater favor: Weyl regularly bedded down Schrodinger's wife, Anny, so that Schrodinger was free to seek elsewhere the erotic inspiration he needed for his work. Three more papers followed in quick succession, each an arrow to the hearts of the likes of Heisenberg, Born and Bohr, who had labored so long and so unsuccessfully on the problem. Darst Sehr Learn more about this copy.

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