Excerpted from “Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat” by Paul Halpern.
Science writer and physicist Dr. Paul Halpern report, "Einstein & Schrödinger were friends then competitors in hunt for Grand Unified Theory. A media war tore them apart."
This is the tale of two brilliant physicists, the 1947 media war that tore apart their decades-long friendship, and the fragile nature of scientific collaboration and discovery. When they were pitted against each other, each scientist was a Nobel laureate, well into middle age, and certainly past the peak of his major work. Yet the international press largely had a different story to tell. It was a familiar narrative of a seasoned fighter still going strong versus an upstart contender hungry to seize the trophy. While Albert Einstein was extraordinarily famous, his every pronouncement covered by the media, relatively few readers were conversant with the work of Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger.
Those following Einstein’s career knew that he been working for decades on a unified field theory. He hoped to extend the work of nineteenth-century British physicist James Clerk Maxwell in uniting the forces of nature through a simple set of equations. Maxwell had provided a unified explanation for electricity and magnetism, called electromagnetic fields, and identified them as light waves. Einstein’s own general theory of relativity described gravity as a warping of the geometry of space and time. Confirmation of the theory had won him fame. However, he didn’t want to stop there. His dream was to incorporate Maxwell’s results into an extended form of general relativity and thereby unite electromagnetism with gravity.
Every few years, Einstein had announced a unified theory to great fanfare, only to have it quietly fail and be replaced by another. Starting in the late 1920s, one of his primary goals was a deterministic alternative to probabilistic quantum theory, as developed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, and others. Although he realized that quantum theory was experimentally successful, he judged it incomplete. In his heart he felt that “God did not play dice,” as he put it, couching the issue in terms of what an ideal mechanistic creation would be like. By “God” he meant the deity described by seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: an emblem of the best possible natural order. Spinoza had argued that God, synonymous with nature, was immutable and eternal, leaving no room for chance. Agreeing with Spinoza, Einstein sought the invariant rules governing nature’s mechanisms. He was absolutely determined to prove that the world was absolutely determined.
Exiled in Ireland in the 1940s after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Schrödinger shared Einstein’s disdain for the orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics and saw him as a natural co laborator. Einstein similarly found in Schrödinger a kindred spirit. After sharing ideas for unification of the forces, Schrödinger suddenly announced success, generating a storm of attention and opening a rift between the men.
'You may have heard of Schrödinger’s cat—the feline thought experiment for which the general public knows him best. But back when this feud took place, few people outside of the physics community had heard of the cat conundrum or of him. As depicted in the press, he was just an ambitious scientist residing in Dublin who might have landed a knockout punch on the great one.
The leading announcer was the Irish Press, from which the international community learned about Schrödinger’s challenge. Schrödinger had sent them an extensive press release describing his new “theory of everything,” immodestly placing his own work in the context of the achievements of the Greek sage Democritus (the coiner of the term “atom”), the Roman poet Lucretius, the French philosopher Descartes, Spinoza, and Einstein himself. “It is not a very becoming thing for a scientist to advertise his own discoveries,” Schrödinger told them. “But since the Press wishes it, I submit to them.”
Einstein's Dice and Schrödinger's Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics by Paul Halpern
Published on: 2015-04-14
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