Schrödinger, Erwin (1887–1961), physicist, was born 12 August 1887 in Vienna, Austria, the only child of Rudolf Schrödinger, prosperous owner of a linoleum and oilcloth business, and the bilingual Georgine Emilia Brenda, daughter of Alexander Bauer, professor of chemistry, and his English wife, Emily Russel. The family placed great importance on education and Erwin was educated at home by tutors and his father, ‘his friend, teacher and tireless partner in conversation’ (D. Sc. Biog.), who had a large library and a great interest in botany and art. In 1898, at the age of 11, he went to the Gymnasium in Vienna, where the emphasis was on the classics. After entering the University of Vienna (1906), he began attending lectures in theoretical and experimental physics. He received his Ph.D. (1910) and joined the staff until the outbreak of the first world war, during which he served as an artillery officer on the Austro–Italian border. He also managed to continue his researches and published his first paper on quantum theory (1917). He married (24 March 1920) Annemarie (‘Anny’) Bertel and, despite an unusually open marriage, she remained with him for the rest of his life. At this time he was offered a poorly paid associate professorship in Vienna, which paid even less than Anny was earning as a secretary. He declined the position.
Due to the break-up of the Austro–Hungarian empire a prospective professorship of theoretical physics at Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine) fell through. He proceeded to spend time (1920–21) at several universities – Jena, Stuttgart, and Breslau – before being appointed to the chair of theoretical physics at the University of Zurich (1921–7), where it is generally accepted his most productive research was carried out. Here he published his revolutionary work in a series of papers relating to quantum-wave mechanics and the general theory of relativity (1926). His partial differential equation, ‘Schrödinger's wave equation’, is the basic equation of quantum mechanics and changed the view of a particle description of an atom to a wave description. For this work he was awarded the Nobel prize for physics (1933), shared with his friend Paul Dirac.
On the retirement of Max Planck, the inventor of the quantum hypothesis, he was appointed professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin (1931), where Einstein was one of his colleagues. After the advent of Hitler to power (1933), he spoke out repeatedly as a private citizen against the regime and by the end of the year had resigned his post and left Germany. Elected into a fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford, he requested an additional post for an assistant, an Austrian colleague, Arthur March, with whose wife Hilde, he fathered a daughter in 1934. During this period he also spent time in Spain at the University of Madrid and at Princeton University. He was offered positions at both universities, but he declined the US offer and the Spanish offer fell through on the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. Later that year he accepted a position at the University of Graz, Austria, longing to return to his own country. However, after the German annexation of Austria (Anschluss) in 1938 he was viewed unfavourably by the Germans for his previous Berlin resignation (1933) and was dismissed from his post just as he was preparing to leave the country. He fled to Rome and gratefully accepted an offer in a smuggled letter from Éamon de Valera (qv), of a position at the school of theoretical physics in the newly created Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. De Valera had trained in mathematics and was inspired to set up a school similar to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, where Einstein was a professor. The Dublin institute was to specialise in theoretical physics and Celtic studies. In order to establish its international reputation Schrödinger was suggested as a suitable first director by Edmund Whittaker (qv), mathematics professor at Edinburgh, and previous teacher of de Valera.
After a year at Ghent, Belgium, Schrödinger arrived in Dublin (1939) and set up home at 26 Kincora Road, Clontarf, with an unconventional family arrangement of his wife Anny, Hilde March, and their daughter Ruth. Schrödinger was passionate about theatre and became part of the city's artistic and theatrical circles. During his life he fell in love with many women and during his time in Dublin he fathered two daughters by two different women (1944, 1946). He maintained close friendships with de Valera and with Pádraig de Brún (qv), professor of mathematics at St Patrick's College, Maynooth.
In Dublin he continued his work on quantum theory, general relativity, statistical mechanics, nuclear physics, and probability theory and began publishing on unified field theory. Here he ran into disagreements with other scientists, most notably Einstein. An excellent teacher, he gave the first lectures on quantum theory in Ireland to staff and students of both Dublin universities. Often taking an idiosyncratic approach to research, in 1935 he proposed a famous theoretical experiment to demonstrate the limitations of quantum mechanics. He imagined that a live cat was locked into a steel chamber with a radioactive atom connected to a vial containing a lethal poison. If the atom decayed it would cause the vial to break and kill the cat. But when the chamber is shut the observer cannot know whether or not the atom has decayed and therefore the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. Schrödinger was questioned so often about this experiment that he was later said to have regretted that he had ever mentioned the cat.
As well as physics he was concerned with broader questions of philosophy, the origins of life, and man's place in the universe. He endeavoured to make connections between physics and biology, and in February 1943 gave a series of three lectures at TCD which were subsequently published as a book, What is life? (1944), and translated into six languages. These concerned the physical aspects of the living cell, specifically the relationship between quantum theory and genetics. Watson and Crick, discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA (1953), later acknowledged in a letter to Schrödinger that his book was most influential in their entering the field of molecular biology. His interest in science, philosophy, and the classics was expressed in his book Nature and the Greeks (1954).
Many of his publications appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, as well as the proceedings of the academies of science of Vienna, Berlin, and the Vatican. He was a member of a number of academies of science and a fellow of the Royal Society, and was an honorary member (1931) and professor (1940) of the RIA; for the latter, he received a special grant from the Irish government until his position in DIAS was confirmed. Among others he received honorary doctorates from the University of Ghent (1939), NUI (1940), and Dublin University (1940) and also received the Medaglia Matteuci (1929) and the Max Planck medal (1937). In 1957 he was accepted into the German order Pour le mérite.
Schrödinger and his wife became Irish citizens in 1948, although they retained their Austrian nationality. There were numerous appeals from Austria, including one from the president, Karl Renner, for Schrödinger to return to his homeland, which he was unwilling to do while it was under Soviet occupation. Austrian neutrality (1955) prompted his retirement from DIAS, and he returned to his homeland in 1956 as professor in the University of Vienna. In 1957 he was proposed unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Austrian presidency. After a debilitating illness he died 4 January 1961 and was buried in Albach, in the Tyrol. His posthumously published book Meine Weltansicht (1961; translated as My view of the world (1964)) expressed his own metaphysical point of view. In his honour the Schrödinger Lecture series was inaugurated in 1995 in the Erwin Schrödinger lecture theatre, TCD. A portrait by Seán Keating (qv), RHA, hangs in the School of Theoretical Physics, DIAS.