Article abstract: Schrödinger invented wave mechanics in 1926, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac) in 1933, and he helped to develop the formal equations that are central to quantum mechanics. His pioneering work on the relationship between physics and living systems influenced the growth of molecular biology.
Erwin Schrödinger was born on August 12, 1887, the only child of a well-to-do Viennese family. The Schrödinger family was part of the intellectual life of Vienna during a period when scholarly attainment was regarded as a loftier goal than material or political well-being. Erwin’s father, Rudolf Schrödinger, operated a prosperous linoleum business, but he managed to find time in his schedule to pursue studies in Italian painting, in botany, and in chemistry.
With the exception of a brief stay at a public elementary school in Innsbruck, Erwin was educated by a tutor who visited the family home twice a week. His maternal grandmother was British, and fluency in English gave his studies a considerable boost; as he matured, Schrödinger added proficiency in German, French, and Spanish to his arsenal of languages. Until the age of eleven, Erwin’s primary educational influence was his father, who proved to be an invaluable sounding board on a host of subjects. At this time, Erwin entered the academic Gymnasium at Vienna and commenced a program of studies in the classics and in mathematics and physics.
Schrödinger entered the University of Vienna in 1906. The following year, he began to attend lectures in theoretical physics. In 1910, he received his doctorate and assumed a position as assistant to Franz Exner at the university’s Second Physics Institute, where he remained until the outbreak of World War I. During this period, Schrödinger published papers on a range of subjects, including magnetism, radioactivity, X rays, and Brownian motion. Exner was heavily influenced by Ludwig Boltzmann, an influence which carried over to Schrödinger’s later work. When Schrödinger was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1933, he declared that “his [Boltzmann’s] line of thought may be called my first love in science. No other has ever thus enraptured me or will ever do so again.”
Following an undistinguished service in the military, brief appointments at Jena, Stuttgart, and Breslau culminated with Schrödinger’s appointment in 1921 to the chair of theoretical physics in Zurich, a position formerly held by Albert Einstein. Prior to his stay in Jena, he had married Annemarie Bertel of Salzburg on June 6, 1920. During this period, his papers touched on a number of subjects, including general relativity, probability theory, a lengthy review of dielectric phenomena, and a series of papers on three- and four-color theories of vision. Schrödinger’s main efforts, however, were targeted on atomic theory. The papers that secured his reputation were composed in a half-year’s flourish of creativity before he left Zurich. It was there in 1926 that Schrödinger, at the relatively advanced age of thirty-nine, invented wave mechanics and published what is known as the Schrödinger wave equation, the formalism which is the foundation of modern quantum mechanics.
Schrödinger’s invention of wave mechanics represented an attempt to overcome some difficulties generated by Niels Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom. In particular, attempts to construct a theory of a stable system of more than two particles (such as the helium atom, with a nucleus and two electrons) had failed. The inspiration for Schrödinger’s wave mechanics was Louis de Broglie’s suggestion that particles are nothing more than a wave crest on a background of waves. De Broglie supposed that electrons display wave features, and, in order to support this thesis, he attempted to fit a whole number of wavelengths into each electron orbit, in a way which precluded the possibility of in-between orbits. He concluded that both wave and particle behavior are inextricably combined in the case of the electron. On behalf of his thesis, de Broglie predicted that matter-waves would be detected by diffracting a beam of electrons from a crystal. Even as de Broglie was formulating his ideas, this effect was observed in 1922 by Charles Kunsman and Clinton Davisson.
Schrödinger used the mathematics of waves in a way which attempted to eliminate quantum jumps, or the notion that electrons move instantaneously from one level to another. He sought to represent this quantum transition as the passage of energy from one vibrational form into another, rather than as the jumping of electrons. The transition of an electron from one energy state to another, Schrödinger believed, was akin to the change in the vibration of a violin string from one note to another. These results were announced by Schrödinger in four seminal papers published in the Annalen der Physik early in 1926, the first of which contains his famous wave equation.
Schrödinger’s wave mechanics was eagerly embraced by numerous scientists who had been puzzled by the emerging atomic theory and regarded the model of a wave as furnishing a realistic account of microprocesses; it was also criticized on a number of counts. It was not clear, for example, how an entity such as a wave could make a Geiger counter click as though a single particle were being recorded. Furthermore, it was not evident how black-body radiation was to be explained in terms of Schrödinger’s waves. A further wrinkle was added when Carl Eckart and Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac showed that Werner Heisenberg’s equations (which were based on the supposition that electrons are particles) were equivalent to Schrödinger’s theory that...
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