Erwin Schrödinger: why did he fail at Oxford?

Matin Durrani reviews Schrödinger in Oxford by David Clary

Troubled times After an unhappy three years in Oxford starting in 1933, Erwin Schrödinger returned to Austria and is shown here in 1937 with a car belonging to German physicist Max von Laue. (Courtesy: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Lindsay Collection)

“Biology,” a physicist recently remarked to me, “is too important to be left to the biologists.” In a similar vein, I’m sure there are many scientists who think that “history is too important to be left to the historians”. It was a notion that nagged away at me while reading Schrödinger in Oxford by David Clary, which examines the time spent by the Austrian theorist Erwin Schrödinger at the University of Oxford in the 1930s.

Clary is an Oxford chemist and former president of Magdalen College, where Schrödinger spent three years as a fellow from 1933. He would therefore seem well placed to write a biography about Schrödinger’s time at Oxford. But history is never as easy as scientists like to think. It’s all very well describing who did what and when, but clarifying the motivations of the protagonists and putting their work into context with the wider world are vital ingredients too.

The raw material is certainly here for a gripping story. The book starts on 9 November 1933, the day that Schrödinger takes up his fellowship at Magdalen. After a traditional ceremony in Latin, the pealing of bells and dinner at high table, the college’s then president – George Gordon – is summoned into his office. There he receives a phone call from the Times newspaper, telling him that Schrödinger has just won that year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, jointly with Paul Dirac.

The timing must have seemed impeccable. Here was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, lured to a university that had traditionally been weak in science. Surely his presence would be the spark to light up Oxford physics? I can almost picture a Hollywood biopic starting here, with Gordon emerging from his office to congratulate Schrödinger, who goes on to transform the department and win over his contemporaries.

However, Schrödinger was a complex and controversial character. He arrived in Oxford after five years in Berlin. Yet unlike many other physicists who left Germany in the 1930s, he was not Jewish – but Catholic. Schrödinger was married, but had several affairs, including one with Hilde March (the wife of the physicist Arthur March), with whom he had a daughter (Ruth). Disturbing allegations have also recently emerged that he groomed and sexually abused young girls, though these came to light too late to be mentioned in Clary’s book.

Schrödinger’s time at Oxford proved less than successful. The university was dominated by humanities scholars and there were simply not enough good physicists for Schrödinger to work with or challenge him. He never felt at home, despite speaking excellent English (his grandmother was English and Schrödinger had taken childhood trips from Austria to Leamington Spa). He earned a decent salary, but was given no real duties, prompting him to complain he was – as his wife Anny put it – “a charity case”.

Clary pins Schrödinger’s troubled time at Oxford on him being “an independent and informal character”, who did not like traditions, rules and formal dress. “He was a lone scientist and not a collaborator,” Clary writes. What’s more, as a Nobel laureate, Schrödinger was “distracted by many invitations to visit departments overseas and was always receiving job offers which he, sometimes rather foolishly, often took all too seriously”.

Schrödinger did publish four influential articles while in Oxford – including the famous paper in which he coined the term “entanglement” – but he was not happy there. Even trivial matters, such as the supposedly poor quality of British door knobs and bike brakes, caused disgruntlement, according to one colleague. In 1936, just three years into his five-year fellowship, Schrödinger returned to Austria, taking up a chair at the University of Graz and an honorary professorship at the University of Vienna. It seems, with hindsight, a bizarre decision.

Although Austria was still an independent nation at the time – Germany did not annexe the country for another two years – the political situation in Europe was reaching boiling point. The Nazis were on the rise and numerous prominent Jewish physicists, many of whom Schrödinger worked closely with, were fired from their posts. In fact, the despicable treatment of Jewish physicists was one reason why he had left Berlin in the first place.

Just before departing Oxford, Schrödinger wrote a joint letter to the Times with Albert Einstein, thanking the Academic Assistance Council for helping hundreds of scholars to flee Germany. He had also spoken on the theme of “freedom” in a radio lecture for the BBC. Having taken up German citizenship during his time in Berlin, Schrödinger’s views – as a Nobel laureate – would certainly have been noted by the Nazi authorities.

Quite why he returned to Austria is not entirely clear from Clary’s book. His decision appears to have been partly due to banal matters like lecture load, social life and the quality of colleagues and students. Money played a role too: Schrödinger was offered 20,000 schillings for the Graz job topped up with 10,000 schillings for his Vienna post – more than he ever got at Oxford. I would have liked the author to explore more fully Schrödinger’s motivations, but Clary skates over the subject, merely noting that he was “naïve”.

While in Austria, Schrödinger tried to keep up his ties with Oxford, and there was even a suggestion of him coming back to deliver a series of summer lectures. However, this plan was rejected at the highest level by Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister. In the words of the British foreign secretary Lord Halifax, who was then chancellor of Oxford, von Ribbentrop viewed Schrödinger as a “fanatical opponent” of the Nazi regime. A trip to England would, von Ribbentrop claimed, let Schrödinger “resume his anti-German activities”.

With life growing more difficult for Schrödinger, he wrote a letter to his local newspaper in Graz, suddenly claiming great support for the Nazis. Schrödinger later admitted to Einstein that the letter was “cowardly”, and Clary suggests he may have written it so he could travel to Berlin for the 80th-birthday celebrations of Max Plank. Schrödinger was eventually fired from his post in Vienna in April 1938 and, leaving his Nobel prize medal in the back of a filing cabinet in his office in Graz, he escaped.

Travelling via Italy and Switzerland, Schrödinger returned to Oxford, arriving exactly a day before his five-year term as fellow would have expired, dining one last time in college as permitted. But there was no role for him in Oxford and, after a stint in Belgium, Schrödinger moved to Ireland in 1940, becoming founding director of the new Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. He was to stay there until 1956 – living together with Anny, Hilde and Ruth – before eventually returning to Austria for good.

It was no ordinary life. But I would have liked Clary to give us more of a sense of Schrödinger’s character and personality. Instead, the author too often gets side tracked by lengthy descriptions of the mundane machinations of grant awards, job applications and prizes. People are often introduced without explanation: “Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit”; “Heitler and London”; “Heisenberg, Born and Jordan”; “Maxwell”. And I fear non-scientists will find the scientific explanations of Schrödinger’s contributions to physics, such as his eponymous wave equation, tough going.

While Clary’s style is clear, I feel pertinent information is often missing. We are told, for example, that during the First World War, Schrödinger “studied Einstein’s general theory of relativity when he was at the Italian front in 1916. This allowed him to write two short papers on the topic on his return to Vienna in 1917”. But how was he able to study while a war was raging? How did he have the time, space or ability to think, or access to reading materials?

Schrödinger in Oxford does provide plenty of raw material for historians, with extensive extracts from letters to, from or about Schrödinger. Clary benefited in this regard from archival letters obtained with permission from Schrödinger’s daughter Ruth Braunizer, with whom the author talked before her death in 2018 aged 84. The elephant in the room, though, is Schrödinger’s complex personal life, to which the author makes only oblique references.

I feel that Clary has missed an opportunity to offer his own appraisal of Schrödinger as a person. The book was written before sexual-abuse revelations prompted the school of physics at Trinity College Dublin to announce it would rename its Schrödinger lecture theatre. Having examined Schrödinger’s life so forensically, Clary should, in my view, have addressed his behaviour head-on. As a senior researcher and former president of Magdalen, his opinion counts.

  • 2022 World Scientific 420pp £85.00hb/£35.00pb/£28.00ebook