We need to talk about Schrödinger
In light of recent revelations about the personal life of one of the most infamous quantum physicists, it is time we re-measured Schrödinger’s legacy? [Content warning: sexual assault]
In an Irish Times article from Dec 11 2021, Joe Humphreys brought the personal life of one of the most famous names in quantum physics into the spotlight: allegations surfaced suggesting Erwin Schrödinger had been a paedophile. Moreover, the article summarises Schrödinger’s own journal entries as having justified his “predilection for teenage girls on the grounds that their innocence was the ideal match for his natural genius”.
Trinity College Dublin – where Schrödinger had been based in the 1940s and 50s – responded the following April by renaming a lecture theatre which, until that point, had been named in his honour.
As the newly appointed module lead of the level 5 Physics module PHY2022 Quantum Mechanics I for 2022/23, I kept checking for any further updates. The Institute of Physics published a new accreditation framework for Physics degrees in July 2022. While this no longer contained specific requirements to reference to the Schrödinger equation, its omission reflected a change of focus from “content” to “skills” rather than any suggestion that the equation which governs the evolution of state of quantum particles be renamed.
Meanwhile, the Wikipedia entry for Schrödinger had been updated to reflect the allegations in the Irish Times article. His personal life now had the potential to become an elephant in the room of my lectures which, morally, I felt the need to address.
I was keen to proceed with caution and care. I received the backing of my department’s Education Team and faculty APVC for Education to approach the subject with students before writing the lecture content. I chose to deliver this content via a Mentimeter presentation as this offered me a better chance of hearing from and amplifying the perspectives of quiet and marginalised students as compared to asking them to raise their hands and speak out in front of their peers. With support from colleagues in the School of Education, I also crafted a content warning to give students who could have been emotionally triggered by discussions of sexual assault the chance to protect themselves and excuse themselves from the remainder of the lecture.
The lecture itself concerned measurement in quantum mechanics. Prior to being measured, a particle exists in a superposition state: a weighted sum of all potential outcomes. But after measurement, it collapses down to one observed outcome. This is commonly explained using the “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment where a cat, confined to a box containing a radioactive substance, exists in a superposition state of alive+dead until the box is opened and it is observed to be in one of the two possible states. What I encouraged the students to do is imagine placing Schrödinger’s legacy in a separate box. I invited them to tell me what they already knew about him. Most answers referenced “cat” or “equation”, but four responses called him “dodgy” and “not a nice person”, indicating that some students may already be aware of what I was about to reveal to the whole cohort. I explained that for a long time, when people have opened this imaginary box containing Schrödinger’s legacy, they have only observed “genius”. I then delivered the content warning and explained what the Irish Times article had brought to light. I finished the lecture with a Mentimeter question inviting students to leave their thoughts. This was set to hide responses so that they were not displayed to other respondents. Below are a few examples of the responses that were received.
“Needs to be talked about. So much of societal norms sweep these things under the rug not just to women but prejudice in general. This pushes diversity away from science.”
“I appreciate knowing the facts. I don’t know how I feel about him, I’m just kind of shocked. This should definitely be taught in lectures… I feel like now that we learned the equations was better.”
“You have allowed us to think critically about the people who helped build physics. Ignorance allows him to be immortalised in a warped light. STEM is has many biases. Information is a key tool to tackle it.”
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Dr. Claire Davies is a Lecturer (E&S) in Physics & Astronomy. She is the module lead for the stage 2 physics module Quantum Mechanics I and Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for the Department of Physics & Astronomy (including Natural Sciences).