If Quantum Mechanics has come so far today, it wouldn’t have been possible without contributions from some of the finest minds in history. And, Erwin Schrödinger is one such mind. Today, on the eve of his 133rd birth anniversary, let’s try to dig a little deeper into the life of this genius.
Early life and Education
Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger was born in Austria’s capital city, Vienna, on August 12, 1887. His father Rudolf Schrödinger was a botanist. While his mother Georgine Bauer was the daughter of a chemistry professor. Erwin was a gifted child. He learned English and German at home as both were spoken in the household. He didn’t go to elementary school, rather he received lessons at home from a private tutor up to the age of ten. In 1898, He entered the Akademisches Gymnasium.
Higher education and Career
Erwin joined the University of Vienna for higher studies. Here, he focused primarily on the study of physics and got strongly influenced by another young physicist, Fritz Hasenöhrl. Schrödinger graduated with a Ph.D. in physics in 1910. Afterward, he worked for a few years at the institution as a lab assistant.
However, in 1914, the government drafted him into World War I where he served with Austro-Hungarian military forces in Italy as an artillery officer. After returning back, he took on a number of faculty and staff positions at various places. These include the University of Stuttgart, the University of Jena, and the University of Breslau. Eventually, he joined the University of Zurich in 1921 where the wonders were waiting for him.
The Equation of Life
Erwin Schrödinger’s tenure as a professor at Zurich over the next six years proved to be one of the most important periods of his physics career. Here, he became fascinated by the new idea that electrons could behave both as particles as well as waves.
Aroused by his curiosity, he published a paper on the same in 1926. In this paper, he derived a new equation, now known as the Schrodinger Wave equation. This equation described how systems with wave-particle duality, like electrons, change over time. This was a remarkable accomplishment of its time. And, is still one of the most important milestones in the history of quantum mechanics. This equation was termed as the “Equation of Life” by Richard Feynman.
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It gave the correct energy eigenvalues for the hydrogen-like atom. Without any doubt, this paper has been universally celebrated as one of the most important achievements of the twentieth century. It created a revolution in quantum mechanics, and indeed of all physics and chemistry. In the coming years, three more papers were published in this series. These papers were undoubtedly the central achievement of his career.
The Hamiltonian of a system describes the total energy of the system. It is the sum of the kinetic energy and the potential energy of a system. Note that H is an operator, just like the differential operator or any other operator in mathematics. So the wavefunctions do not cancel out on the LHS and the RHS.
But how can we say that it is an analog of Newton’s second law? Well, in classical physics, the most important parameter is the position x of an object. Once we know the position, we can find other dynamic parameters such as momentum, velocity, acceleration, and energy. Similarly, in quantum mechanics, the most important parameter is the wavefunction. Once you know that, you can compute many other parameters.
In 1935 Schrödinger published a three-part essay on “The present situation in quantum mechanics”. In order to make it easily understandable to people, it contained a purely hypothetical thought experiment. It says that imagine there’s a cat is in a box with a source of poison gas. That gas would be triggered (or not) by the decay of one electron in one direction or another.
Now, Because of the uncertainty of the electron’s behavior, there exists a moment in time when the observer is unsure whether the cat is alive or dead, and in some sense, it’s both! I have previously written a detailed article on Schrodinger’s cat which you can find here.
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What Is Life?
In 1944, Schrödinger published his book named “What is Life?”. Although it wasn’t entirely original, it had a profound effect on the future of genetics and molecular biology. Schrödinger wrote that the gene was an aperiodic crystal, a code script for life. His book inspired a number of scientists. These include three of the main players in the discovery of DNA’s structure – Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins.