7 Things You Didn't Know About Schrödinger

So, today is Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger's 136th birthday and Google celebrated with with a clever Schrödinger's Google Doodle:

We bet that whenever you hear the word "Schrödinger," you immediately think of Schrödinger's Cat. But how much do you actually know about the man behind the famous paradox?

Here are some of the neatest facts about Erwin Schrödinger. No physics involved, we promise!

1. The Challenge That Caused Schrödinger to Figure out Wave Mechanics

Swiss physicist Felix Bloch recounted the story of how wave mechanics came to be: One day, Nobel laureate Peter Debye said, "Schrödinger, you are not working right now on very important problems anyway. Why don't you tell us some time about that thesis of de Broglie, which seems to have attracted some attention."

And so Schrödinger did. He gave a talk about how French physicist Louis de Broglie postulated that matter also has wave properties, but Debye dismissed the talk as "childish," pointing out that "to deal properly with waves, one had to have a wave equation."

Schrödinger thought about it and soon after left his wife for a two-and-a-half-week vacation at a villa in the Swiss Alps. He took only de Broglie's thesis, an old Viennese girlfriend (whose identity remains a mystery until today), and two pearls. After, uh, rigorously "consulting" with the girlfriend for inspiration, Schrödinger shoved the pearls into his ears to get himself some peace and quiet, and set to work on wave mechanics.

By the next talk, Schrödinger said, "My colleague Debye suggested that one should have a wave equation; well, I have found one!"

Years later, Bloch approached Debye and asked him about the encounter. Debye claimed that he had forgotten, but Bloch thought that he was regretful that he goaded Schrödinger into working out the formula rather than doing it himself. Regardless, Debye turned to Bloch and said, "Well, wasn't I right?"

2. The Schrödinger Banknote

A physics post-doc once said to me that "there's no money in physics." That may be true, but there sure is physics in money! Behold, the Schrödinger Banknote, circa 1983.

3. Schrödinger Wasn't Just All About Physics

When he's not busy winning the Nobel prize for Physics and other physical activities (see below), Schrödinger loved to "ski, skate, swim, [and] climb mountains."

4. Schrödinger's Duality of Marriage

Whether Schrödinger's Cat lives or dies may be a matter of quantum probabilities, but there's no mystery about Schrödinger's marriage: he openly had many mistresses, including Hilde March, the wife of his physics colleague Arthur March.

But don't worry about Schrödinger's wife Anny - Arthur regularly bedded her as well.

5. Schrödinger Came Back ... as a Character on Futurama

Schrödinger came back to life in an episode of Futurama, where he broke the law by going 15 miles per hour over the speed of light while carrying a box with "a cat, some poison, and a cesium atom" inside. From The Infosphere, a Futurama wiki:

[Circuit City. Fry and URL are pointing guns at Schrödinger.]
Fry: DNA and career chip, please.
[Schrödinger offers his hand and Fry pierces it with a gun that projects a hologram reading NNY DMV, ERWIN SCHRÖDINGER and showing Schrödinger's profile photograph.]
URL: Erwin Schrödinger, huh? What's in the box, Schrödinger?
Erwin Schrödinger: Um... A cat, some poison, und a cesium atom.
Fry: The cat! Is it alive or dead? [Schrödinger is not given the time to reply.] Alive or dead?! [URL pushes Schrödinger against his car's door, alarming him.]
URL: Answer him, fool.
Erwin Schrödinger: It's a superposition of both states until you open it and collapse the wave function.
[Fry enters the car.]
Fry: Says you.
[Fry opens the box and a cat jumps out of it, attacking him. Fry screams. URL takes a close look at the box.]
URL: There's also a lotta drugs in there.

6. Schrödinger on Quantum Mechanics He Helped Build: "I Don't Like It"

So, what did the eminent physicist actually think of the probability interpretation of quantum mechanics? He said, "I don't like it, and I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with it." Later, physicist Gregor Wentzel told him, "Schrödinger, it is most fortunate that other people believe more in your equation than you do."

7. Schrödinger's Cat is Schrödinger's Way to Make Fun of Quantum Mechanics


Look Out Schrodinger's Cat, It's A Trap! by Mike Jacobsen

So, back to Schrödinger's Cat, remember him? It's ironic that Schrödinger's famous thought experiment was actually proposed to make fun of the strange nature of quantum physics.

In 1935, Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen came up with an article that highlights the strange nature of quantum entanglement - that a quantum system's state is not defined until it is actually measured.

So, Schrödinger wrote:

One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a "blurred model" for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.

See also: Schrödinger T-shirt designs from the NeatoShop


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