Mathematics and Physics #2: Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian theoretical physicist, born in 1887, who contributed largely to the wave theory of matter and other fields in quantum mechanics.

Erwin Schrödinger (1933).jpgSchrödinger’s wide array of interests began at a young age; he not only liked scientific disciplines, but also admired the logic of ancient grammar and the beauty of German poetry. In 1906, he became a student at the University of Vienna, where he studied under Fritz Hasenöhrl, Boltzmann’s successor, and stayed there for 4 years. During these years, Schrödinger mastered eigenvalue problems in the physics of continuous media, thus laying the foundation for his future work.

In 1921, Schrödinger took up a position at the University of Zurich, where he stayed for 6 years. It was here that he enjoyed huge amount of contact and friendship with many of his colleagues such as Hermann Weyl and Peter Debye and it was one of his most fruitful periods. He actively engaged in various subjects in theoretical physics; his papers of that time deal with heats of solids, problems in thermodynamics and atomic spectra, as well as some physiological studies of colour.


His greatest discovery – Schrödinger’s wave equation – was conceived at the end of his time in Zurich (in the first half of 1926), and was published in Annalen der Physik in the paper entitled ‘Quantisierung als Eigenwertproblem’. This wave equation correctly calculated energy values for electrons in an atom. In the paper, Schrödinger gave a derivation of the wave equation for time-independent systems and showed that it gave the correct energy eigenvalues for a hydrogen-like atom. This paper has been celebrated as one of the most important achievements in quantum mechanics in the 20th century.

On the origins of the Schrodinger equation
Schrodinger’s Equation | Source:

This result came as a result of his dissatisfaction with the quantum condition in Bohr’s orbit model and his belief that atomic spectra should really be determined by a eigenvalue problem.

Source: Wikipedia

“Schrödinger was breaking new ground and did the heroic job of getting the right equation. How you get the right equation, is less important than getting it. He did such a wonderful job of then deriving the hydrogen atom wave function and much more. So did he understand what he had? You bet, he was really right on target.”

– Marlan O. Scully, a physics professor at Texas A&M University

In 1927, he succeeded Max Planck at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, where he met Albert Einstein. However, in 1934 Schrödinger decided to leave Germany due to the Nazis’ growing anti-semitism. As a result he moved to the United Kingdom, where he became a Fellow of Magdalen College in the University of Oxford. It was here that Schrödinger learned that he had won the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing the award with Paul Dirac. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Schrödinger stated that his mentor, Hasenöhrl, would be accepting the award if he hadn’t died during World War I.


In 1939, he moved to work at Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin, Ireland, heading its School for Theoretical Physics. He remained in Dublin until the mid-1950s, returning in 1956 to Vienna, where he continued his career at his alma mater.

In 1944, Schrödinger wrote the book ‘What is Life?‘, which contains a discussion on the negative entropy of living systems, and the concept of a complex molecule with the genetic code for living organisms. According to James Watson‘s memoir ‘The Secret of Life‘, this book gave him the inspiration to research this gene, leading to the discovery of the DNA double helix structure in 1953.


Sadly, in 1961 Schrödinger died in Vienna. To this day, Schrödinger is considered as the father of quantum mechanics. A few of his

During (and after) his lifetime, Schrödinger acquired many honours and awards apart from the Nobel Prize, including:

  • Max Planck Medal in 1937: awarded for extraordinary achievements in theoretical physics
  • Elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in 1949
  • The large crater Schrödinger, on the far side of the Moon, is named after him.
  • The Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics was established in Vienna in 1993.


Schrödinger’s Cat??

Many of you may recognise the name ‘Schrödinger’ due to Schrödinger’s cat, which is a though experiment devised by Schrödinger in 1935. The video below will help explain it:

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3

Hope you enjoyed this post. Make sure to check out the first installment of this series on Richard Feynman! Please let me know if you have any requests on people or fields of maths which you would like me to talk about next! M x


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