Erwin Schrödinger was born around the time of the Michelson-Morley Experiment, but he was pre-eminently a twentieth-century theoretician. He lived until 1961, witnessing during his life gigantic upheavals in science, culture and world politics.
He is well-known today for his quirky yet profoundly provocative Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. It depicts the paradox of a cat that is simultaneously dead and alive due to some strange implications inherent in the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Yet Schrödinger’s legacy goes way beyond this simple scenario. His original interpretation of the physical meaning of wave function has profound implications in electrodynamics, quantum mechanics and cosmology.
Schrödinger’s greatest achievement was the creation of partial differential equations showing that the quantum state of a physical system oscillates on a temporal scale. In this scheme, the wave function is the most complete and realistic description that can be given to any physical system. The equation goes well beyond describing quantum, atomic and molecular – i.e. small-scale – systems, boldly claiming applicability in the macroscopic domain, including the entire universe. The assertion is that there is a universal wave function equivalent to all that is.
This view dovetails with Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation that asserts the objective reality of the universal wave function, in the process denying wave function collapse as propounded in the Copenhagen Interpretation.
Despite the fact that Schrödinger played a key role in the early development of quantum mechanics, eventually he had serious reservation concerning some of its implications. Later in life he backed away from the probabilistic aspect of conventional wave theory.
In the 1940’s, Schrödinger attempted to devise a Unified Field Theory that would synthesize our knowledge of gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces within the perspective of Einstein’s General Relativity. It cannot be said at this time that he achieved success in this venture, but much of Schrödinger’s early work remains relevant.
We have examined some of Schrödinger’s technical achievements that go far beyond the Cat Paradox. In addition, there were spiritual and political dimensions to this great individual’s thought. Throughout life he maintained an intense interest in Vedantic philosophy, and he certainly deserves credit for the fact that although raised in a Christian household, he vigorously opposed Nazi anti-Semitism in the 1930’s, escaping persecution by relocating to England in the face of certain retaliation.