Biographers (and Physicists) Are Pigs

I’m deep in book revisions at the moment, which largely accounts for the relative blog silence. This is expected to continue for a while yet, broken by the occasional post when something comes up that is irritating enough to push me to write about it. Such as, well, now.

In the chapter on the Copenhagen Interpretation, I spend some time laying out the basic principles of quantum mechanics, and mention the Schrödinger equation. I noted in passing that the name is taken from “the Austrian physicist and noted cad Erwin Schrödinger.” Kate questioned whether this was really appropriate, but I left it in, and it turned out to be about the only thing in that chapter that my editor really liked.

She asked for more detail, so to oblige, I hit Google to confirm my memory of the famous Schrödinger anecdotes– developing the eponymous equation while on a ski holiday with a mistress, losing jobs because of his philandering, shacking up with two women for years. Wikipedia provided some confirmation (much of it sloppily plagiarized from this page, which is so badly formatted that I’m fairly sure they got it from somewhere else, but I don’t care enough to chase it down), including the name of the mistress from his days in Oxford, Hildegund March, the wife of his colleague Arthur March.

Of course, Wikipedia is kind of sketchy on the details of the relationship, and it would be nice to throw something in about exactly how long he spent living with both his wife (Annemarie Bertel, described in his highly sanitized Nobel biography as his “faithful companion”) and March and her daughter. Details regarding March were especially sketchy, so I headed for the library, and what appears to be the definitive biography, Walter Moore’s Schrödinger: Life and Thought (New York Times review).

While Moore does describe Hilde March as one of the great loves of Schrödinger’s life, he doesn’t bother to provide much in the way of detail about her. He doesn’t even bother to give her year of birth or death– her husband, Arthur March, appears on fewer pages than she does, and he gets dates, and even a death scene. She gets to receive a nice letter from Schrödinger offering condolonces on the death of her husband, and then drops out of the story completely (not that there’s much story left– he dies four years later, and the book just stops at that point).

This isn’t a fatal flaw in the bio, or anything– she’s probably the second most important of his mistresses (after the anonymous woman on the ski holiday who, er, helped him work out the wave equation), and doesn’t seem to have done anything else of note. But, really, given that he carried on with her in a scandalous manner for several years, and had a daughter with her, you might think she’d at least rate a note saying whether she outlived him or not.

And now, of course, I keep finding myself distracted by questions about Hilde March that I have neither the resources nor the expertise to answer, and no real need to know the answers to. It’s the intellectual equivalent of an “earworm” in pop music, and every bit as annoying as having some six-bar phrase of music stuck in your head for days at a time…

(For the record, “cad” isn’t too far off– Moore relates some stories about Schrödinger’s womanizing that are not the least bit amusing, such as the girl he got pregnant who was left sterile by a botched abortion. Moore also quotes some sections from Schrödinger’s diary that are breathtakingly arrogant– in a bit where he’s obsessing about Hilde March, he wishes to get her into bed just once, because no woman has ever slept with him and not ended up wanting to spend her entire life with him.

(It is perhaps not surprising that Schrödinger and Einstein got along famously.)

8 thoughts on “Biographers (and Physicists) Are Pigs

  1. I find myself imagining some of your dialog with Emmy explaining Schroedinger’s cat – or maybe bunny in this case…

  2. If Schrödinger was classically heterosexual, so be it. The whole of civilization sums to horny guys seizing sex by crushing the competition. We abandoned sanity for puddles of soured breast milk: compassionate income redistribution, social promotion in education, and $5 billion/week for hyper-tech soldiers purely incapable of defeating god-besotted wretches.

    Put a brothel on every high school and college campus and the world goes sane and productive. Erwin! Erwin! Erwin!

  3. I don’t think I’d fully understood the story about the 17-year-old before reading the linked review. I’m still not sure “cad” is the word I’d have used, but I’m just fine with the value judgment now . . .

  4. There’s a scathing letter in Fermi’s papers at the University of Chicago from Fermi to the cad telling the cad that it would not be alright to bring both the women to visit the University of Chicago — very cold even by Fermi standards. I also have a vague memory that an historian found a very large collection of porn written by the cad.

  5. The exact word that you are looking for is ‘stoat’.

    Lifted from Clive James: “Pushkin was a stoat. There are less vulgar ways of putting it, but they wouldn’t fit a sex drive like his. In his earlier amatory career, which appears to have got under way at about the same time as his chin grew its first whisker, he routinely referred to females, compliant or otherwise, as “c**t”. On the eve of his marriage, he described, in a letter to a similarly priapic male friend, the blissful state of wedlock as “lawful c**t”, which he further defined as “a kind of warm cap with ear-flaps”.

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