In Niels Bohr's theory of the atom, electrons absorb and emit radiation of fixed wavelengths when jumping between fixed orbits around a nucleus. The theory provided a good description of the spectrum created by the hydrogen atom, but needed to be developed to suit more complicated atoms and molecules. Assuming that matter (e.g., electrons) could be regarded as both particles and waves, in 1926 Erwin Schrödinger formulated a wave equation that accurately calculated the energy levels of electrons in atoms.
Erwin Schrödinger was born on August 12,
1887, in Vienna, the only child of Rudolf Schrödinger, who was
married to a daughter of Alexander Bauer, his Professor of Chemistry
at the Technical
College of Vienna. Erwin's father came from a Bavarian family
which generations before had settled in Vienna. He was a highly gifted
man with a broad education. After having finished his chemistry
studies, he devoted himself for years to Italian painting. After this
he took up botany, which resulted in a series of papers on plant
Schrödinger's wide interests dated from his school years at the
Gymnasium, where he not only had a liking for the scientific
disciplines, but also appreciated the severe logic of ancient grammar
and the beauty of German poetry. (What he abhorred was memorizing of
data and learning from books.)
From 1906 to 1910 he was a student at the University of Vienna, during
which time he came under the strong influence of Fritz Hasenöhrl, who
was Boltzmann's successor. It was in these years that Schrödinger
acquired a mastery of eigenvalue problems in the physics of continuous
media, thus laying the foundation for his future great work. Hereafter,
as assistant to Franz Exner, he, together with his friend K. W. F.
Kohlrausch, conducted practical work for students (without himself, as
he said, learning what experimenting was). During the First World War
he served as an artillery officer.
In 1920 he took up an academic position as assistant to Max
Wien, followed by positions at Stuttgart (extraordinary professor),
Breslau (ordinary professor), and at the University
of Zurich (replacing von
Laue) where he settled for six years. In later years Schrödinger
looked back to his Zurich period with great pleasure - it was here
that he enjoyed so much the contact and friendship of many of his
colleagues, among whom were Hermann Weyl and Peter
Debye. It was also his most fruitful period, being actively
engaged in a variety of subjects of theoretical physics. His papers at
that time dealt with specific heats of solids, with problems of
thermodynamics (he was greatly interested in Boltzmann's probability
theory) and of atomic spectra; in addition, he indulged in
physiological studies of colour (as a result of his contacts with
Kohlrauseh and Exner, and of Helmholtz's lectures). His great
discovery, Schrödinger's wave equation, was made at the end of this
epoch-during the first half of 1926.
It came as a result of his dissatisfaction with the quantum condition
in Bohr's orbit theory and his belief that atomic spectra should
really be determined by some kind of eigenvalue problem. For this work
he shared with Dirac the Nobel Prize for 1933.
In 1927 Schrödinger moved to Berlin as Planck's successor. Germany's
capital was then a centre of great scientific activity and he
enthusiastically took part in the weekly colloquies among colleagues,
many of whom "exceeding him in age and reputation". With
Hitler's coming to power (1933), however, Schrödinger decided he
could not continue in Germany. He came to England and for a while held
a fellowship at Oxford. In 1936 he was offered a position at Graz,
which he accepted only after much deliberation and because his longing
for his native country outweighed his caution. With the annexation of
Austria in 1938, he was immediately in difficulty because his leaving
Germany in 1933 was taken to be an unfriendly act. Soon afterwards he
managed to escape to Italy, from where he proceeded to Princeton
University. After a short stay he moved to the newly created Institute
for Advanced Studies in Dublin, where he became Director of the
School for Theoretical Physics. He remained in Dublin until his
retirement in 1955.
All this time Schrödinger continued his research and published many
papers on a variety of topics, including the problem of unifying
gravitation and electromagnetism, which also absorbed Einstein and which is still unsolved; (he was also the author of the well-known
little book "What is Life?", 1944). He remained greatly
interested in the foundations of atomic physics. Schrödinger disliked
the generally accepted dual description in terms of waves and
particles, with a statistical interpretation for the waves, and tried
to set up a theory in terms of waves only. This led him into
controversy with other leading physicists.
Throughout his scientific career and also in his personal life, Schrödinger
never tried to achieve a specific goal, nor did he follow any
extensive project. He always found it difficult to work with others,
even with his own pupils.
His unconventional way of life may probably be best illustrated by the
fact that he would always carry his belongings in a rucksack on his
back, and walk to the hotel from the station, even on such occasions
as the Solvay Conferences in Brussels.
After his retirement he returned to an honoured position in Vienna. He
died on the 4th of January, 1961, after a long illness, survived by
his faithful companion, Annemarie Bertel, whom he married in 1920.