Schrodinger in Clontarf


Essay: On the eve of the second World War, physicist Erwin Schrödinger was invited to Ireland by Eamon de Valera. He stayed for 16 years in the Dublin suburb of Clontarf, where Irish author Neil Belton was born. Here Belton recalls the background to the novel he has written about the era

Years ago, all I knew about the physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, was that in 1935 he devised an infernal little scenario, a "thought experiment" involving a cat locked in a box. The box contains a flask of prussic acid. The glass will be smashed by the fall of a hammer released by the decay of a radioactive atom, and will release a fatal gas. To a person watching the box it will be impossible to say whether the hidden cat is alive or dead. The moment of atomic decay that will kill the cat is impossible to predict; only the act of opening the box and observing it can give the cat the certainty of life or death. Until then it inhabits a blurred zone, both dead and alive, or perhaps neither, like the radioactive atom that exists in a smeared-out state of decay and undecay.

There was something about the image of the cat waiting for a cruel death that disturbed me; a premonition, from within the pure atmosphere of German scientific speculation, of other bodies huddled in the dark waiting for unrandom death. I took a copy of Walter Moore's life of Schrödinger with me to Vienna in 1990, intending to spend Christmas with a friend who covered eastern Europe for the BBC. He met me at the airport, apologetic but tense with excitement: the Albanians were rising against their dictatorship. He left for Tirana that night, driving on icy roads over the Balkans.

I stayed in my friend's enormous flat near the Hofburg, and read about Schrödinger. Moore's book is lucid and comprehensive, rather technical, more than a little indulgent towards its hero's ungovernable compulsions, but it gripped me, all the more because I could walk a few blocks to the magnificent apartment building on Gluckgasse where Schrödinger grew up, and walk in the snow under the elegant windows of the gymnasium he attended on Beethovenplatz. The brilliance and ease of his early life seemed to be a part of the flowing forms of the Viennese art-nouveau buildings and the glittering, anxiously sensual art on their walls. And he had been touched by the most significant events of the early 20th century: he fought in the first World War, lived through the break up of the Habsburg Empire, revolutionised physics, enjoyed the highest academic honours in Weimar Berlin and resigned from his post when Hitler came to power.

Then it began to go wrong: he felt marginalised by younger men and ideas that he hated, there were a few unhappy years in Oxford and a disastrous return to Austria that left him at the Nazis' mercy after the Anschluss. He behaved disgracefully then, attempting to curry favour with the new regime.

The cat paradox had been a sign of his frustration. Schrödinger meant to show by the nonsensical situation of an undead animal the absurdity of an aspect of quantum theory, at least in the dogmatic form laid down by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg: the notion that the quantum world is radically uncertain, that the act of looking at a particle changes it, causes it in a sense to have a reality that it would not otherwise have had. Some of Bohr's followers really did believe that until a human observer looked inside the box the cat would be neither alive nor dead. But cats, Schrödinger thought, and everything else in the world, have a real existence separate from our observation of them.

Schrödinger's satire on quantum physics - a field he helped to create - has instead become the most popular image of the weirdness of quantum theory, as though he gloried in it. In this, and in other ways, he was a failure, and yet his wave equation, which can predict where in the atom a particle is probably to be found, and tell you what state it is in, is used every day by chemists and physicists around the world. They don't much care about the anguish of a man who refused to accept that what he saw as mumbo-jumbo had conquered physics, and that the world imagined by classical physics was over. And more than 40 years after his death, there is still no "deeper" explanation for the strangeness of the quantum world, an explanation of the kind that Schrödinger spent the last half of his life trying to find.

In 1938, stranded and jobless in Austria, and in danger of worse retribution from his enemies, he was invited to Ireland by Eamon de Valera, who wanted to build the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies around him. He came in 1939, and stayed for 16 years, living in Clontarf, a suburb that should have seemed dull enough to anyone reading about it in the heart of old Vienna; but I was born and raised there. I was taken by the idea of an exotic, Nobel Prize-winning pagan living in as ordinary a street as Kincora Road, amid the silences and privations of the Emergency.

I spent a long time trying to find a form for this idea. I wrote other things, but kept coming back to the thought of this flawed man cycling along the quiet streets of Dublin, in a country living on less and less coal and oil and wheat and tea - a state suspended between life and death. I found myself writing about the north side of the city at a time when it was still surrounded by fields and a few big houses; when St Anne's, the enormous Guinness mansion, was not yet the burnt-out ruin I played in as a child. In the later 1950s you could still find gas masks from the Emergency in the cellars of the house and the ruined gardens. This was the background against which I could try to imagine a man defeated by forces that were not amenable to capture in a beautiful equation, and by scientific ideas that he found unbearably ugly. De Valera's Ireland, not at war, not at peace, now seemed the right setting for a frustrated genius. And the country then seemed shadowy and strange and faintly shameful. We let so few Jews come in: a few dozen between the rise of Hitler and the collapse of Nazi Germany. It was a time of moral and political ambiguity, and I tried to see it through the eyes of a stranger experiencing defeat, loss and exile.

I imagined that he feared invasion, feared being once more at the mercy of the Nazis from whom he had twice run away, and tried to understand what his home life might have been like - he lived with his wife and mistress and their child, but he was romantic and predatory, and carried on other affairs while living in a suburb that felt suffocatingly straitlaced even 30 years later.

As regards his life in Dublin, I found I had to invent almost everything on the basis of the kinds of things that I knew he'd done. I made characters, reluctantly, of real people, including de Valera, because that seemed truer than some conventional disguise, and wondered whether mathematics meant more to that intensely political man than politics itself. Why had he set up an institute for the study of theoretical physics and Gaelic philology at the very moment when the rest of the world was going to hell? Perhaps Schrödinger represented a different country to him, an Ireland not yet ready to be born. In any case, my chronicle of Schrödinger, as a real historical figure, is utterly unreliable. It is my fantasy of the world not long before I was born, the moment when we like to think that there was still a chance to get it right.

A Game with Sharpened Knives, by Neil Belton, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson next month