A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Erwin Schrödinger
1887 - 1961

Erwin Schrödinger was the only son of well-educated parents. His father owned an oil cloth factory and was an amateur painter and botanist. Erwin was taught at home, by tutors and parents, until he was 11. He then attended school to prepare for university.

He attended the University of Vienna where he was inspired by a brilliant young physicist, Friedrich Hasenhörl. Schrödinger obtained his PhD in physics and took a position with the university, where he remained until World War I. He served as an artillery officer on the Italian front. During the war Hasenhörl was killed; in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1933, Schrödinger remarked that without the war, it would have been his teacher Hasenhörl receiving the honor. As the war neared its end and he dared think ahead, Schrödinger looked forward to a post as a professor at the University of Czernowitz, but as war ended so did the Austro-Hungarian Empire, along with Schrödinger's opportunity at Czernowitz. He went back to his somewhat secondary post in Vienna, got married, and soon was offered a new position. He changed jobs several times before being offered the chair in theoretical physics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland in 1921.

His six years in Zurich were among the most productive in his career, though he didn't begin the work for which he was best known -- wave mechanics -- until 1925. His interest was sparked by a footnote in a paper by Albert Einstein.

Schrödinger began to think about explaining the movement of an electron in an atom as a wave. By 1926 he published his work, providing a theoretical basis for the atomic model that Niels Bohr had proposed based on laboratory evidence. The equation at the heart of his publication became known as Schrödinger's wave equation. This was the second theoretical explanation of electrons in an atom, following Werner Heisenberg's matrix mechanics. Many scientists preferred Schrödinger's theory since it could be visualized, while Heisenberg's was strictly mathematical. A split threatened among physicists, but Schrödinger soon showed that the two theories were identical, only expessed differently.

In 1927 Schrödinger was offered the extremely prestigious job of replacing Max Planck when he retired from the University of Berlin. Schrödinger hated to leave the Alps for the crowded city, but he accepted. It turned out to be a wonderful teaching and learning period for Schrödinger, but one brought to a nasty close by the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He saw many esteemed colleagues hounded from their jobs and forced to leave the country. He also chose to leave in 1933, the year Hitler became Germany's chancellor. He went to Oxford University and in his first week there learned that he'd won the Nobel Prize with Paul Dirac.

After three years, he returned to a university post in Austria, but in 1938, Germany invaded and Schrödinger was dismissed. The Prime Minister of Ireland at the time, Eamon de Valera, was a mathematician and invited Schrödinger to join the newly established Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. Schrödinger emigrated there with few possessions and little money. He remained for 17 years, often turning his attention to philosophical questions about physics and its relationship to other fields.

In 1956, after war and foreign occupation had receded from Austria, Schrödinger returned to Vienna. He fell ill the following year and died in 1961.

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