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Sunday, April 19, 2015

“Albert is an old fool”: Einstein vs Schrödinger in battle of the Nobel laureates

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."

Erwin Schrödinger, Albert Einstein (Credit: Wikimedia)

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.”
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Additional resources  

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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Paul Halpern (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Source: Salon

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