Searching for the Man Behind the Cat

John Gribbin
Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution
(Wiley, 2013)

If you’ve heard of Erwin Schrödinger, and your knowledge of physics is limited to a dimly remembered high school class, it’s probably because of his hypothetical cat. The Austrian scientist devised the thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s Cat” to show the absurdities of his contemporaries’ understanding of quantum physics. Under their theory, Schrödinger said, a cat in a sealed box exposed to poison through radioactive decay would be both alive and dead until a person looked inside the box. Only the act of observation would seal the cat’s fate.
John Gribbin, the author of Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, has written other books exploring the cat conundrum, but the jacket for his latest release promises to tackle “the physicist behind the box.” By necessity, any biography of Schrödinger will focus on his Nobel Prize-winning work, so the book serves an additional, equally important purpose: to break down a complicated set of ideas, ideas that stymied even Einstein—for the lay reader. Gribbin—a longtime popular science writer, largely succeeds in that task. It’s the personal aspects of Schrödinger’s life that give him trouble.

Schrödinger is best known among scientists for developing a wave equation for electrons and other particles, but his influence can be also seen in fields such as genetics. Gribbin is evenhanded in his assessment of Schrödinger’s legacy. An astrophysicist himself, he admits he shares Schrödinger’s skepticism about the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the theory that would hold the cat was both alive and dead until observed because an electron has both wave and particle properties until measured. The interpretation was widely accepted in Schrödinger’s time and remains popular today, but Gribbin writes that modern applications of quantum mechanics expose its folly. Elsewhere, Gribbin does not shy from describing other aspects of Schrödinger’s work as misguided, such as his attempts to find a quantum theory of the universe.

The concepts to which Schrödinger and his colleagues devoted themselves are fascinating, and for the most part Gribbin illuminates them nicely. Such clarity carries casualties, however. The flow of the narrative is one of them. Gribbin frequently refers readers to a previous or future chapter for elaboration on a particular concept.

A larger casualty, unfortunately, is the telling of Schrödinger’s personal life. This is understandable, to an extent. If readers are getting the CliffsNotes on the physics, it stands to reason they’ll get the CliffsNotes on the physicist, too, if only to keep the book balanced. As Gribbin flits from one period of Schrödinger’s life to the next, however, the reader can’t help but feel cheated.

The lack of detail is not for a lack of material. Schrödinger wrote poetry and had a lifelong interest in Eastern religion, professing a belief in a universal consciousness that encompassed all of humanity. His birth year (1887) and birthplace (Vienna) put him on a collision course with some of the most significant events of the 20th century: he served as an artillery officer for the Austrian military in World War I and taught at a Berlin university during the Nazis’ rise to power. He opposed the regime and gave up a prestigious, lifetime position in the city in 1933. But five years later, after Hitler annexed Austria, where Schrödinger had taken another academic position, he wrote a public letter supporting the regime. Gribbin touches on these events, but only superficially.

The author devotes more attention to Schrödinger’s love life, but not nearly enough, considering the details he does dole out reveal the scientist’s marriage was as unorthodox as his thinking on quanta. Schrödinger married a fellow Austrian, Anny Bertel, when he was 32 and she 23, though it did little to dull his penchant for younger women, including girls who were barely adolescents. He fell for the 14-year-old daughter of one of Anny’s acquaintances while he tutored her in math, and they consummated the relationship the night she turned 17. Later, he carried out an affair with his friend Arthur March’s wife, Hilde. While she was pregnant with his child, he persuaded officials at Oxford to hire both him and the lesser-known physicist, March. To the dismay of Schrödinger’s staid new employer, Hilde acted as his second wife, and Anny, who conducted a prolonged affair of her own, not only accepted the arrangement, but helped raise his and Hilde’s child.

One passage illustrates Gribbin’s mindset in writing the biography. He says that Schrödinger was most prolific in his work during his affairs, “one reason why this aspect of Schrödinger’s private life cannot be ignored, even in a scientific biography.” Biographers, scientific or otherwise, do readers a disservice by ignoring any aspect of a subject’s personal life. For Gribbin to suggest he only delves into Schrödinger’s romantic dalliances grudgingly is especially frustrating, considering he has already covered his subject’s contributions to quantum physics in his previous work.

Gribbin includes a postscript centered on Terry Rudolph, a physicist who only learned he was Schrödinger’s grandson after he earned a physics degree. He’s supposed to serve as a living embodiment of the book’s twin personal and scientific purposes, but his placement at the conclusion feels unearned. Given the book’s focus and tenor, a more appropriate place to end would have been the final chapter, a look at the exciting applications of Schrödinger’s findings in technologies such as quantum computers and teleportation—a section devoid of any mention of Schrödinger’s personal life.


Greg Ryan

GREG RYAN is a writer and reporter who lives in Fort Greene.