An Irishman's Diary
NOT MANY life stories involve Nazis, quantum physics, a strange cat and a research institute in Dublin. I was reminded of this as I read Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, a new biography of the famous Austrian physicist who spent almost 20 years at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. For anyone with an interest in 20th-century science, author John Gribbin’s lucid account of the life of this intriguing scientist is a treat.
Erwin Schrödinger was one of the founders of quantum theory, the new physics that swept through the world of science in the years 1920-1940. Quantum theory was concerned with the behaviour of the smallest particles of matter, yet it shook the world of science to its foundations, replacing a “deterministic” view of the world with a new view of nature in terms of probability. Schrödinger’s main contribution was the development of an equation that allowed physicists to describe the micro-world with familiar mathematical tools. Indeed, the Schrödinger equation remains the starting point for almost any problem in quantum physics today. Another contribution was his famous “cat paradox”, a thought experiment that highlighted some philosophical problems underlying the new physics.
For Irish readers, the story of Schrödinger’s time in Dublin is fascinating. He spent the longest period of his professional life at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and always referred to this time as the “happiest years of my life”. But how did a world-renowned scientist come to spend 17 years in a tiny research institute in Ireland?
The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies was set up by taoiseach Éamon de Valera in 1940. De Valera realised that fundamental research in such subjects as mathematics and language could be done in Ireland at little expense since such researchers “needed only pen and paper”.
An Institute of Advanced Studies had been set up in Princeton, New Jersey, in order to provide sanctuary for Einstein and other scientists fleeing the Nazi regime, and de Valera decided on a similar venture in Ireland. A former mathematics teacher, he had a lifelong interest in mathematics and in the Irish language, so it was decided that the institute would have a School of Theoretical Physics and a School of Celtic Studies. When de Valera was advised that the brilliant Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger was under threat from German forces in Austria, he invited him to Ireland to act as director of the fledgling institute.