Editor at ‘The Secrets Of The Universe’, I have completed my Master’s in Physics from India and I am soon going to join Institute of Space Sciences, Barcelona for my doctoral studies on Exoplanets. I love to write about a plethora of topics concerned with planetary sciences, observational astrophysics, quantum mechanics and atomic physics, along with the advancements taking place in the space industry.
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. So today, on his 134th anniversary of birth, 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 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, he took on several 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 and waves.
Aroused by his curiosity, he published a paper on the same in 1926. In this paper, he derived a new equation known as the Schrodinger wave equation that describes 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. It was termed the “Equation of Life” by Richard Feynman.
More on quantum mechanics
- What is quantum tunneling and how is it the reason behind our existence?
- Understanding the Feynman diagrams in physics
- Quantum gravity: the hardest problem in Physics
It gave the correct energy eigenvalues for the hydrogen-like atom. Unquestionably, 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 wave functions 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 wave function. 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.” 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.
Because of the uncertainty of the electron’s behavior, there exists a moment 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.
- 3 important life lessons that we can learn from Paul Dirac
- 20 Most inspirational quotes by Richard Feynman
- How mankind lost a brilliant scientific mind in the first world war
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 several scientists. These include three of the main players in discovering DNA’s structure – Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins.