Erwin Schrödinger

By Matthew Gear

Childhood

Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger was born on August 12th, 1887. He was born in Vienna, in Austria. His parents were Rudolph Schrödinger and Georgine Emilia Brend. Little did the know that he would one day become an outstanding physicist and would help to bring on the modern world in ways that we only take for granted. He would excel in the field of quantum theory, create thought experiments that would go down in history, and would even win the Nobel-Peace Prize. On that wonderful morning on the 12th of August, a star had arisen.

Career

In the early days of his career, Schrödinger studied mostly in the fields of electrical engineering, atmospheric electricity, and atmospheric radioactivity. He studied vibrational theory, the theory of Brownian movement, and mathematical statistics. Though the more physical part of his career, these early years of study are outshined by his later work, the vast majority of which was subsequently theoretical. In those later years, he was lead to a field of study which had just been discovered, not thirty years prior. It was studied by several famous scientists, including Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Arnold Sommerfeld. This field was Quantum Mechanics.

The principle of quantum mechanics is understanding the physical phenomena that happen at nanoscopic scales. It deals in giving a mathematical description of the wave-like and particle-like behavior of all energy and matter in the known universe. Schrödinger contributed greatly to this science. He developed his own branch of quantum physics, known as wave mechanics which revolved around the Schrödinger equation. All of it had to do with the mechanics of matter and energy at atomic and subatomic levels moving either as particles or as waves, and how they were shown on a chart called a spectrum.

Schrödinger's Cat

Schrödinger's theoretical persuasion didn't stop at physical science. It turns out the man had a philosophical side as well. His famous thought experiment, Schrödinger's Cat, which involves a cat, obviously, a sealed box, a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter, and a vial of poison, is still widely referenced today in modern science. The experiment was actually created as a rebuttal for a popular doctrine at the time, known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. This is all already really confusing, and it only gets worse, so I'll make things easier for you. To fully understand Schrödinger's Cat, we must first understand the Copenhagen Interpretation.
First of all, in quantum mechanics, there is a lot of argument about whether energy (light, sound, radioactivity, etc.) moves in the form of a wave, or in the form of quantum particles. Energy moves as particles, while, at the same time, moving as a wave. This is known as the wave-particle dilemma, and is an aspect of quantum mechanics that defies the principle of classical physics: "Two physical objects of the same kind exist separately; i.e., two objects that belong to the same kind cannot have identical location at an identical time and must therefore be separated in space and time." The Copenhagen Interpretation seeks to undermine this previously universally acknowledged principle, stating that a particle exists in all states at once until it is observed.
This is where Schrödinger's Cat comes in. The experiment is as follows: A cat is placed in a sealed box, along with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter (used to detect radioactive decay) and a vial of poison. If a particle's movement were strictly defined as the movement of random quantum particles, the radioactive energy coming from the sample would go all over the place, not hitting the Geiger counter often enough for it to be able to detect decay. But if a particle's movement were strictly defined as a wave, there would be an ever constant flow of radioactive energy coming from the sample, more than enough for the Geiger counter to detect radioactive decay, and once the sample tripped the wire, so to speak, the Geiger counter would cause a hammer to smash the vial of poison, consequently killing the cat inside.
Now comes the weird part. If we apply the Copenhagen Interpretation to this situation (energy is both particles and waves at the same time until observed), the radioactive energy being emitted from the sample inside the sealed box is both waves and quantum particles at the same time. In this new situation, two realities are created inside of the box at the same time, resulting in the cat being both alive AND dead at the same time, that is, until the box is opened and the cat is found to be either alive or dead, and not both. Based on the common sense of modern science at this point in time, we know that a reality in which a cat is both alive and dead at the same time is impossible, and thus is the Copenhagen Interpretation disproved.

Awards

  • Nobel Prize in Physics - 1933
  • Max Planck Medal - 1937
  • Erwin Schrödinger Prize - 1956

Works Cited

"Erwin Schrödinger." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.


"Erwin Schrödinger - Biographical." Erwin Schrödinger - Biographical. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.


"Schrödinger’s Cat Explained." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.


"Wave–particle Duality." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.


Faye, Jan. "Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics." Stanford University. Stanford University, 03 May 2002. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.


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