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A biography of a brilliant and colourful polymath.
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, one of the biggest upheavals in human knowledge took place. This is often called the quantum revolution. Particles could behave like waves, they could be at two places at a time, get to one place from another without passing through space in between, and nothing was certain - everything was probabilities. These counter-intuitive and bizarre ideas were conceived, fostered and delivered to the world in brilliant mathematical forms by a group of European scientists, a never-again galaxy of the brightest minds. These included Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and perhaps the most colourful of them all, Erwin Schrodinger.
Many have written about Schrodinger, including John Gribbin himself. Almost 30 years ago he wrote the bestseller In Search of Schrodinger's Cat. This contributed in part to popularising what Schrodinger is perhaps best known for amongst the lay public - the cat that is both dead and alive. Gribbin is a phenomenally prolific science writer, having penned over 100 books including Science: A History and Universe: A Biography. He is undoubtedly the most competent populariser of the wondrous but tough-to-understand world of quantum mechanics.
And so, in this swansong book of his, he consummately merges an explanation of quantum mechanics with the life history of one of those men who created it. There are photographs of the period that are a treat in themselves, spanning the interweaving strands of the personal (" sausage parties" with a bevy of women) and professional (the Fifth Solvay Conference of 1927, gathering all the greats). And, for good measure, Gribbin brings us up to date with an explanation of current applications of quantum theory, including unbreakable codes, quantum computing and even teleportation.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is an easy job. We are not talking about Steve Jobs and the iPad. We are dealing with a complex personality, a man with serious sexual issues, buffeted about in Europe, barely escaping Nazi jackboots, rejecting Oxford and Princeton because these hallowed precincts looked askance at him turning up and wanting accommodation for both "his wife and mistress". But yet he was a dazzling polymath, engaged in furious debates with giants like Einstein, Bohr and Dirac, working on a theory of colour, and penning a monograph - What is life? - that both Crick and Watson independently acknowledged led them to the idea of the double helix structure of DNA.
Perhaps the strangest thing is that Schrodinger became a sceptic of the very system he had helped develop. In this he was with Einstein and opposed to Bohr. Gribbin weaves the intricate tale of these people hammering out the quantum view of matter and describes with panache how the Copenhagen view espoused by Bohr ultimately prevailed. In this version which is still taught to students, matter exists as both waves and particles and what you observe depends on what you are looking for. Questions like 'what is it really?' or 'where is it when we are not observing it?' are irrelevant and meaningless.
Schrodinger's famous equation, which got him the Nobel Prize in 1933, is one of the pillars that holds this up. It describes in luminous elegance how a quantum entity behaves like a wave. But Schrodinger was deeply dissatisfied. That is why in 1935, he conceived the thought-experiment about the cat which has equal probability of being dead or alive because it will be poisoned by cyanide released due to a radioactive atom decaying or not decaying, with equal probability. He was trying to say: "Look where this theory leads you to! An absurdity!"
Schrodinger was also a deeply philosophical man. Influenced by the German philosopher Schopenhauer, he became a firm believer in the advaita (non-dualist ) Vedanta philosophy, reading German translations of Sanskrit texts. Very early, in 1926, he declared his view that empirically observed reality is an illusion and all nature is united in an all-pervading consciousness, the Brahman.
So, this man, who was wooing nubile neighbours and students and wives of co-workers, who was constantly insecure about his pension provisions, who dressed as a dandy, carried a mind that shone through quantum fogs and vexed philosophical questions. Gribbin, clearly on Schrodinger's side in the debates with Bohr, and laconically affectionate in describing his sexual escapades has been meticulous to unravel the multiple factors influencing Schrodinger's mind. But, wisely, he skirts around a psychological investigation.
In this, he would be appreciated by Schrodinger's daughter Ruth Braunizer, who while speaking at a commemorative meeting in Dublin in the year 2000 lamented, "In our age, voyeurism is very much in vogue, and hardly any figure in public life, whether he/she be of genuine importance or not can escape it".
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