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.

Prof Schrödinger accepted with alacrity. He was not Jewish, but was regarded with suspicion by the Nazis. A prominent appointment in a research institute in a neutral country was greatly enticing, and after a perilous journey, the Schrödingers arrived safely in Dublin in October 1939.

That’s Schrödingers plural. Erwin proceeded to set up house in Clontarf with his wife Anna, his mistress Hilde, and Ruth, his daughter by Hilde. The ménage came as no surprise to those acquainted with the professor, but one imagines it came as some surprise to de Valera. However, it is a curious fact that the Schrödingers felt much more at home in conservative Ireland than they had in Oxford University some years before. Indeed, Prof Schrödinger indulged in numerous romantic affairs in Dublin without sanction.

With the renowned Austrian physicist at the helm, the institute quickly became a leading centre for theoretical physics. Walter Heitler, one of the founders of quantum chemistry, was appointed professor in 1941, and he and Schrödinger attracted many distinguished visitors from the world of physics to the institute. The school did not cater for undergraduate students, but young postdoctoral scholars came from abroad to work with the professors; in this way, a great many of the next generation of European physicists were trained there.

Prof Schrödinger was never to achieve another breakthrough quite like his wave equation; however, he did important work in Dublin on the philosophy of quantum theory (more on cats). He also became active in the emerging field of molecular biology, and his book What Is Life? became a major influence in the search for the structure of DNA.

Schrödinger returned to Austria in the last years of his life, but he remembered his Dublin years with great fondness. Meanwhile, de Valera’s institute continued to thrive. With the appointment of John Synge and Cornelius Lanczos to professorships, it became a renowned centre for the study of Einstein’s relativity. A school of cosmic physics was added that specialised in astronomy, astrophysics and geophysics. In later years, the institute became well known for research in the theory of elementary particles (I should say here that my late father was a Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies professor in this field for many years).

To this day, the institute enjoys an enviable reputation in Celtic studies, theoretical physics and cosmic physics, although it is much better known abroad than at home.

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