Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin

Erwin Schrödinger is one of the more colorful figures in physics history. He’s best known for Emmy’s favorite thought experiment, of course, which attempts to demonstrate the absurdity of quantum physics through locking a cat in a box. This overshadows the Schrödinger Equation, the central equation of non-relativistic quantum mechanics, which won him a Nobel Prize in 1933. He’s also renowned within physics for his unorthodox personal life, which involved innumerable extramarital affairs, and ultimately cost him a job at Oxford.

The definitive academic biography of Schrödinger has been out for a good long while now, Walter Moore’s Schrödinger: Life and Thought, and I read bits of it when researching How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. It’s a pretty hefty book, though, and there’s long been an opening for a shorter popular biography. John Gribbin’s a natural for this, having already written multiple pop-physics books with “Schrödinger” in the title.

This book is a mix of scientific and personal biography, combining sections on Schrodinger’s life with explanations of the physics context of the time. The physics sections are virtually math-free, and serve primarily to provide the larger context in which Schrödinger worked, from his training in thermodynamics and statistical physics through his revolutionary contributions to quantum physics, and his later interests in biology and relativity.

The physics stuff is very good, but was mostly familiar to me. My main interest in the book was in the biographical sections, and Schrödinger is an excellent subject in this regard. There are a number of fascinatingly improbable aspects to his story– he was significantly older than many of the other quantum pioneers, and his background was in fields that didn’t provide an obvious path to the work that made him famous. Based only on his education and early research, he would’ve seemed destined only for a comfortable but not especially distinguished academic career in his native Austria, rather than a Nobel prize and international renown. He was also one of only two physicists formally ejected from the Prussian Academy of Sciences by the Nazi regime (Einstein was the other), and after he left Austria to get away from the Nazis (apparently through pure personal distaste for the regime, as he wasn’t Jewish like most of the other physicists who fled), he wound up at the center of an institute in Dublin thanks to the personal inteverntion of Eamon de Valera.

In terms of physics, while Schrödinger’s contribution to the development of quantum physics was pivotal, it ends up seeming like a bit of an aberration, with his late-career turn to dabbling in biology and Vedic philosophy looking a little more typical. He was, however, renowned as an excellent teacher, even if his unconventional personal style did once require his students to fetch him from the university gate, where he had been denied entry on the grounds that nobody that badly dressed could have any business at the university.

And, of course, there’s his, um, colorful personal life. Though he remained married for forty-ish years, he carried on a series of passionate and surprisingly open affairs. He fathered children by several different women, including the wife of a long-time colleague, and was sufficiently randy that Gribbin drily notes late in the book when the Schrödingers hired a nanny who was actually just there to take care of a child. These affairs are recounted in reasonable detail– not enough to be prurient, but not shying away from the more disreputable aspects either, as when he needed to be warned off the 14-year-old daughter of a family friend.

On the whole, this was an enjoyable read about a fascinating and contradictory character. It doesn’t go all that deep in a lot of places, but then it’s a short popular biography, not a major academic treatise.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a blog review if I didn’t raise some gripes. My main complaint about this is not actually Gribbin’s fault, but his publisher’s: like most of the books I read these days, I read this in electronic form at The Pip’s bedtime, and the electronic edition I bought (from Barnes and Noble, though I read it on the iPad, not the Nook) had a lot of problems. The most significant issue, given that this is a biography and thus regularly quotes letters, books, and papers, was that the formatting doesn’t include any kind of blockquoting. It’s usually pretty clear where a lengthy quote starts, but figuring out where it ends is an exercise in contextual clue-spotting, which got really old, really fast. There are also a number of small errors scattered throughout that suggest the electronic edition was set from the uncorrected proofs, which is just inexcusable.

I also had some minor issues with some of the physics material, which is a little too credulous in its discussion of one variant interpretation that isn’t widely accepted. There’s also a lengthy section near the end dealing with Bell’s theorem and other developments since Schrödinger’s death that is basically copied from one of Gribbin’s earlier books. He openly acknowledges this (saying, basically, that he didn’t think he could better the earlier explanation), but it still struck me as kind of dubious, and ended the book on a bit of an off note.

Again, though, I wasn’t really reading this for the physics stuff, but the entertaining biography. And on that count, it was a very enjoyable book. Moore’s longer book remains a more definitive treatment (and in fact is explicitly cited numerous times in the text here), but this provides a good overview putting the colorful stories into a coherent historical and scientific context.

3 thoughts on “Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin

  1. If he was honest with his wife about his affairs, and she consented, then at least he didn’t cross the line into nonconsensual behavior there. Though, the detail about a 14-year-old girl is over the line and just a wee bit stomach-churning, to put it mildly.

    I suppose this is what it takes nowadays to get certain segments of the public to pick up a book that has anything to do with science. That’s better than nothing, and for some it may be just the thing to get them reading more. What that says about the general public is more alarming than what the book says about Schrödinger’s not-so-harmless kinks. Sigh…

    When I was a little kid, we had the Time/Life science series books, with their wonderful photos of electron micrographs and other planets & galaxies (in the 1960s) to get us interested. Today we have the Hubble photos, in all their awe-inspiring beauty. Contemplating the infinite is a much nicer route than contemplating the tawdry, to get on the path of eagerly wrestling with difficult concepts.

  2. It’s not entirely clear exactly how OK his wife was with the whole thing. She had a long-running affair of her own, and Schrödinger apparently regularly offered to divorce her (though it wasn’t clear how many, if any, of those offers were made to her…).

    And I don’t want to give the impression that this focuses too much on the prurient aspects of the story– about half of the text is purely about physics, and does a reasonable job explaining the state of physics in the early 20th century, and Schrödinger’s role in it. The title includes “Quantum Revolution” after all, and not any mention of his rampant womanizing.

    I don’t talk much about the physics in the blog post because I was already familiar with that stuff, for the most part, and so the primary reason I read the book was to learn more about his personal story. If somebody was paying me to write a review of the book, I’d be more thorough in the physics discussion, but for my personal entertainment, that wasn’t all that important.

  3. Hi Chad- Understood; and the fact that the book is half physics means that anyone who comes for the biographic stuff (whether the routine parts or the tawdry parts) stands a good chance of learning something. IMHO anything that brings people in and gets them thinking is good (within reason). What we also need are some decent science-oriented films on the big screen, preferably not saturated with violence.

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