on 6 February 2011
What are the paths of development through which a creative person, and particularly a scientist, arrives at creations and discoveries that reshape the landscape of human possibility? How do these intertwined paths of possibility interact with the totality of the person's life?
These are the organizing questions of Walter Moore's A Life of Erwin Schrödinger, an iconic figure in understanding the world of the atom and the conditions of scientific knowledge, who also catalyzed the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, Within this book, the domestic and the erotic, the politics of work and the vicissitudes created by national and international politics, within the context of an international European scientific culture, comes alive, The dialogue between Germany, Austria and Denmark, in the pioneering figures in the early and mid twentieth century rethinking of the foundations of physics as a description of the underlying physical structure of the universe, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Weiner Heisenberg, Max Born, and others,against the background of dialogues with Albert Einstein and his work, in the periods during, betweenand shortly after the two World Wars, lives again through the imaginative recreation of Walter Moore, a biographer clearly in love with his subject.
This biography defines itself through elegant prose, through an imaginative and critical sensitivity to the development of Schrödinger's mental universe.Schrödinger's immersion in the Indian monistic philosophy of Vedanta in dialogue with Western philosophers like Arthur Schopenhaur and philosophers of science like Ernst Mach, as these intertwine with the cross-fertilization between scientific ideas, between methods of scientific investigation and the figures who develop them, as these are integrated and transformed in the crucible of Schrödinger's intelligence, are seamlessly described, The reader seems to live in the biographical figure and to experience Berlin, Vienna, Oxford and the United States with Schrödinger, as he moves between these places in the course of his professional development and to experience with him the relationship between his career and personal life and the political forces reshaping Europe at the dawn of the latest stage in Western political history.
Schrödinger emerges as a consummate philosopher scientist, whose seminal impact extends from his primary discipline of physics to his avocation in biology, shaping the thinking of James Watson, one of the discovers of the helical structure of DNA, through his book What is Life?, where the fundamental description of the genetic code is worked out with pregnant clarity.
The Cambridge UP Canto edition provides a smooth, easy read that brings out these sterling qualities but the sheer wealth of the book suggests that reading the unabridged version, Schrödinger: Life and Thought , where these qualities would emerge more fully will be very rewarding .
I read selections of this book in order to explore the question of similarities between methods of scientific modelling and philosophical conceptions described by the Nigerian philosopher Abiola Irele. These similarities emerge from Irele's exposition of the Negritude philosophy of Leopold Sedar Senghor in his The African Experience in Literature and Ideology and The Negritude Moment: Explorations in Francophone African and Caribbean Literature and Thought and of Orisa cosmology in "The African Scholar."
Senghorian philosophical cosmology and Schrödinger's scientific thought are related through the image of waves as demonstrating fundamental relationships between forms of being. What can the similarities between the Senghorian philosophical conception and Schrödinger's scientific concept of wave mechanics as describing the fundamental character and behaviour of sub atomic forms demonstrate about the implications of convergences between philosophical, religious and scientific cosmology?
Niels Bohr and Weiner Heisenberg eventually developed a conception of complementarity in which material forms demonstrate both the qualities of a wave and a particle, the wave-particle duality. This notion of ontological simultaneity may be related to the idea of epistemological mutuality in quantum mechanics in the idea that the observer of these forms influences their behaviour, making impossible an understanding of these forms as independent of the influence of the observer. What illumination could this provide in suggesting a cohesive picture of the universe in dialogue with philosophical and religious cosmologies that emphasise plurality of being and cognitive dynamism where observer and observed shape each other's responses? This question is suggested by Irele's description in "The African Scholar" of a possible correlation between mythic, philosophical and scientific cosmologies that foreground ambiguity, plurality and dynamism as embodied in the ambiguity and dynamism of the mythic figure of the Orisa tradition Esu who demonstrates temporal, material and cognitive ambiguities, transformations and liminalities.
"He throws a stone today and hits a bird yesterday. If he was not so tall, his head might not have been visible above the path. House, verandah and field are constricting for him, but in a groundnut shell, at last he can stretch himself! ".