Erwin Schrödinger in Dublin: Physicist, womaniser, fugitive

The great physicist moved to Clontarf in 1939 on Dev’s invitation with his wife and mistress

Erwin Schrödinger: a very live cat. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Erwin Schrödinger: a very live cat. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

 

It was a most audacious piece of head-hunting. Just as Europe was about to be enveloped by war and the grip of Nazi Germany, then taoiseach Éamon de Valera persuaded the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger to come to Ireland to a research institute that had yet to be set up.

For years De Valera had planned an institute of advanced study in Dublin, modelled on one in Princeton, US, where Albert Einstein sat as its high king.

Schrödinger knew nothing of De Valera and the two men had never spoken to each other, but the taoiseach received a “Yes, I will come” message through a series of secret intermediaries.

Some say Schrödinger had few options. He was about to be fired from the University of Graz in Austria for “political unreliability”. His first attempt to get away from Nazi-influenced Europe had come to nothing when in the 1930s he turned up at the University of Oxford with both his wife and mistress, “offending the academic establishment there by making no attempt to conceal their living arrangements, with which his wife (Anny), who had her own lovers, was quite happy” as described by biographer John Gribbin.

It seems psychological stress, particularly that associated with intense love affairs, helped rather than hindered his scientific creativity

Once alerted in September 1938 that Schrödinger and his wife Anny’s lives were in danger, Dev moved fast. He sent a message through contacts in the science world, notably Edmund Whittaker at the University of Edinburgh.

The couple escaped to Rome with three suitcases and 10 marks in their pockets. Schrödinger and Dev then spoke by phone for the first time. The finer details were ironed out at a face-to-face meeting shortly afterwards in Geneva – the taoiseach was there on political business as president of the League of Nations.

With visas secured by Irish officials, the Schrödinger family got to the UK, and eventually to Ireland in October 1939.

With his two “wives” and his five-year-old daughter, Ruth, they moved to a semi-detached house on Kincora Road in Clontarf. “You might expect Erwin’s unusual domestic arrangements to have been more of a problem in Catholic Ireland than in Oxford; but in Dublin at least there was a marked contrast between what was officially approved and what people actually did,” Gribbin wrote in Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution.

Many affairs

Although Schrödinger had many affairs with women, these were seldom, if ever, casual relationships. His diaries “suggested love was more important than sex” – his conquests were the beneficiaries of his poetry. Moreover, “it seems psychological stress, particularly that associated with intense love affairs, helped rather than hindered his scientific creativity”, concluded another biographer, Walter Moore.

Schrödinger at breakfast with his wife, Anny, in a Vienna hotel. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images
Schrödinger at breakfast with his wife, Anny, in a Vienna hotel. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images

In the mid-1920s he “did his great work during a late erotic outburst in his life” that would change forever the world of physics (this was the verdict of scientist Hermann Weyl, who was Anny’s lover). His wave mechanics papers in 1927 prompted Einstein to remark, “the idea of your work springs from true genius”.

On moving to conservative Ireland, Schrödinger found the world of Irish intellectuals stimulating and engaged his passion for theatre. A friendship with actress Sheila May, a “feisty woman” actively involved in the Labour Party, became a sexual affair in 1944 after her marriage to Celtic scholar David Greene got into difficulties.

She became pregnant and gave birth to a girl in 1945, the same year Schrödinger met a young woman, known as Kate Nolan (not her real name), who was a Red Cross volunteer. The product of that liaison was another girl, who was born in 1946 and unofficially adopted by the Schrödingers.

For Schrödinger, the mystical union of sexual love did not endure for long, Moore observed: “With Erwin it was never able to survive tidings of pregnancy.”

Back to work

In the meantime Schrödinger continued to pay great attention to theoretical physics; philosophical aspects of science, ancient and oriental philosophical concepts, ethics and religion. His lifelong interest in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, influenced his speculations at the close of his 1944 book What Is Life? about the possibility that individual consciousness is only a manifestation of a unitary consciousness pervading the universe.

In 1942 his own tolerant views were reflected in his response to a column by the famous Irish Times satirist Myles na gCopaleen (Brian O’Nolan), whom he knew through meeting in theatrical and intellectual circles. Typically, O’Nolan did not hold back in the article.

Referring to a TCD debate that Schrödinger had participated in, he wrote: “I understand also that Prof Schrödinger has been proving lately that you cannot establish a first cause. The first fruit of the Institute, therefore, has been an effort to show that there are two St Patricks and no God. The propagation of heresy and unbelief has nothing to do with polite learning, and unless we are careful this Institute of ours will make us the laughing stock of the world.”

Schrödinger dismissed the column as a matter of no importance but the council of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) was outraged. After days of frenzied correspondence, he wrote to the council after he saw the text of a draft apology by “Mr Smiley, Chief Editor”, which stated he was grieved by the article. This was not the case, he insisted, and there was no need to apologise to him personally. The paper finally paid £50 to the Red Cross to settle the matter.

De Valera was often accused of setting up DIAS as a vanity project. The opposition was scornful and accused him of trying to “satisfy his vanity with a pretence of scholarship” when the legislation was forced through. Its schools of Celtic studies and theoretical physics represented his two passions: Irish and maths. In spite of all that, “even amid wartime stresses and shortages, DIAS flourished, and Dublin quickly became a world centre for theoretical physics”, Moore notes.

Famous lectures

In February 1943, Trinity hosted Schrödinger’s famous What Is Life? public lectures, the first of which were attended by De Valera (with his Cabinet in tow) and church leaders.

A physicist straying into biology was a gamble, according to Prof Luke O’Neill of TCD, but “during the dark days of World War II, an isolated country on the margins of Europe played its part in the future development of the world as we know it”.

Schrödinger’s Dublin days added up to 17 years; “the happiest years of my life”. A unified theory of physics, however, “the sum total of all that is known into a whole” evaded him after years of effort, as it did for his great friend Einstein. This was the cause of a falling out between the two as Schrödinger uncharacteristically over-sold the significance a paper he gave in 1947 to the Royal Irish Academy.

Though he described Ireland as “the only place in the world where a person like me would be able to live comfortably and without direct obligations, free to follow all his fancies”, He returned with Anny to his beloved Austria in 1956.

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