The Irish Adventures of Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger. Austrian. Physicist. Could possibly be played in a movie by Geoffrey Rush. Most probably famous (but maybe not) for his cat-related thought experiment which was devised in 1935, just before he moved to Ireland.

Wait, what?

Erwin Schrödinger's plaque in Merrion Square
Erwin Schrödinger’s plaque in Merrion Square

In 1939,  then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera was big into maths, and wanted to kickstart a top-notch research hub here in Ireland, which became the Institute for Advances Studies. Schrödinger, being a Nobel prize winner and all, was a fantastic catch for Dev.

Dev and Michael D – (an aside)

We call him Dev here because we’re cool like that. We refer to our current president Michael D Higgins as Michael D, for the same reason.

Schrödinger Packs His Bags

The outbreak of World War Two helped make up Schrödinger’s mind, though, of course. Although he wasn’t Jewish himself, he couldn’t bear what was happening to the Jews in Austria, and so came to a fairly unimportant neutral little island on the edge of Europe: ours.

And so, Erwin Schrödinger became the Director of the School for Theoretical Physics in 1940 and remained in Dublin for the next 17 years, becoming a naturalised Irish citizen in 1948. 

What is Life?

He wrote What is Life? here in Dublin, derived from a series of lectures given on the topic in Trinity College, Dublin. You can read the book in PDF form here.

Schrödinger concludes What is Life? with philosophical speculations on determinism, free will, and the mystery of human consciousness. He believed that he must reconcile two premises:

  1. the body fully obeys the laws of quantum mechanics, where quantum indeterminacy plays no important role except to increase randomness at the quantum scale; and
  2. there is “incontrovertible direct experience” that we freely direct our bodies, can predict outcomes, and take responsibility for our choice of action.

James Joyce and the City of the Dead

The Irish writer James Joyce saw Dublin as being a dead, stagnant thing. His most vaunted novel, Ulysses, depicts the city again and again in yellow and brown, which for Joyce were the colours of decay.

With this in mind, the thought of Schrödinger pondering the exact properties of life, crossing the boundaries back and forth between metaphysics and quantum physics, in Ireland, in a world torn apart by war and genocide, is a rather evocative one.

Food for thought.

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