Today In Science History – August 12 – Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961)

August 12 is Erwin Schrödinger’s birthday. Schrödinger was the Austrian physicist that introduced us to the wave equation of quantum mechanics.

Schrödinger’s wave equation is a cornerstone of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics attempts to explain the behavior of atoms, molecules, and subatomic particles. The wave equation is a differential equation describing the wave function of a system. The solution of the wave equation is called the quantum state of the system. The wave function can be tailored to describe all that is possible to know about a particle or system of particles. This mathematical means to explain motion on the atomic scale would earn him half of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics.

One aspect of his wave mechanics he disagreed with was the interpretation that the wave function deals with probabilities of observing, or measuring, various aspects of quantum systems. The Heisenberg principle states the position and the velocity of a particle cannot be exactly measured with perfect accuracy. Similarly, quantum mechanics shows probabilities of position and velocity and all values are possible, some values being more possible than others, and does not exist until the observer measures it. Schrödinger felt this description was limited since it couldn’t be applied to larger systems. He formulated a thought experiment to show how this way of thinking was absurd. This experiment became known as Schrödinger’s cat.

The experiment involves a cat in a closed box containing a complex boobie trap. The trap was a vial of cyanide gas, a small quantity of radioactive material and a radiation detector. The idea was when the radiation detector detects radiation from the radioactive source it will release the poison gas killing the cat. If no radiation is detected, the cat is just fine. Until the box is opened, there is no way to tell if the cat is alive or dead. Until it is observed, the cat exists in an unknown state between death and life. When the box is opened, the cat’s wavefunction collapses into the solution of either alive or dead.

Schrödinger also worked in the fields of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. He was also involved in trying to derive a unified field theory. He published papers on topics in color theory, electrodynamics, general relativity, and cosmology. He also wrote books on the history of science and philosophy.

Other Notable Science Events for August 12

2004 – Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield died.

Hounsfield was an English electrical engineer who shares the 1979 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Allan Cormack for the development of computer assisted tomography. Computer assisted tomography or CAT scan uses x-rays to produce images from multiple angles and a computer to align the images so a three-dimensional single image could be created.

1989 – William B. Shockley died.

William Shockley (1910 - 1989)

William Shockley (1910 – 1989)
Credit: Stanford News Service

Shockley was an American physicist who shares the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics with John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain for the development of the semiconductor transistor. Transistors are electronic devices used to amplify or switch electronic signals and a basic unit in electronic design. Prior to the semiconductor transistor, transistors were high voltage vacuum tubes. The semiconductor transistor is much smaller, generates less heat and is less expensive.

1979 – Ernst Boris Chain died.

Ernst Boris Chain (1906 - 1979)

Ernst Boris Chain (1906 – 1979)
Credit: Nobel Foundation

Chain was a German-English biochemist who shares the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Howard W. Florey and Alexander Fleming for their research and discoveries of the antibiotic penicillin. Fleming was the bacteriologist who discovered penicillin. Chain and Florey isolated and purified it and conducted the first human trials.

1973 – Walter Rudolf Hess died.

Walter Hess (1881 - 1973)

Walter Hess (1881 – 1973)
Credit: Nobel Foundation

Hess was a Swiss physiologist who was awarded half the 1949 Nobel Prize in Medicine. He identified the parts of the brain that controlled internal organs.

Hess used a technique of electrical stimulation to conduct a repeating signal directly into areas of the brain. He found different parts of the brain, when stimulated, produced emotional responses as well as physical responses. He managed to cause hunger, thirst, slow respiration, lower blood pressure, urination, and defecation.

1973 – Karl Waldemar Ziegler died.

Karl Ziegler (1898 - 1973)

Karl Ziegler (1898 – 1973)
Credit: Nobel Foundation

Ziegler was a German chemist who shares the 1963 Nobel Prize with Giulio Natta for their contributions to polymers. They developed the Ziegler-Natta catalyst to create polymer chains of 1-alkenes. These catalysts are usually either titanium or organometallic aluminum and are used to create polymers such as polypropylene, polyethylene, and polyacetylene.

1960 – NASA launches Echo 1 satellite.


Fully inflated Echo-1 in the Navy hangar in North Carolina.
Credit: NASA

Echo 1 was the first passive communication satellite. It was effectively a mylar balloon in low Earth orbit that reflected radio and microwave signals over the horizon from ground stations on Earth. It was nicknamed ‘satelloon’ by the people working on the project.

Echo-1 reached a maximum orbit of 1684 km and functioned for just under 8 years when it re-entered the atmosphere on May 24, 1968.

1948 – Harry Brearley died.

Harry Brearley (1871 - 1948)

Harry Brearley (1871 – 1948)

Brearley was an English metallurgist who invented stainless steel. He was investigating the corrosion of gun barrels and trying to find a steel that would better resist the high temperatures and pressures from firing. He found adding chromium and nickel to carbon steel put a layer of rust resistance on the steel.

He marketed his discovery in his hometown of Sheffield, England by producing “rustless” knives, pots and other food related uses.

1887 – Erwin Schrödinger was born.

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