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Schrödinger in Oxford - David Clary ***

There have been a number of biographies ofAustrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger, but here the focus is on the handful of years that Schrödinger was a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.  There is an introductory section beforehand, plus a chapter on his move to what would become his permanent home of Dublin and one on his legacy - but it is Schrödinger's time in Oxford that is at the heart of this book: unsettling years both in world affairs leading up to the Second World War and in physics as classical ideas were turned on their head. David Clary, a chemistry professor and former president of Magdalen College is perhaps the ideal person to cover this topic.

Don't expect lots of details on quantum physics - this is very much a biography, rather than a science book with biographical sprinklings. However, what you will find is a level of detail that simply can't be found elsewhere, some of it delightful. So, as a random example, we are told according to Magdalen College tradition, after the 1933 formal dinner welcoming Schrödinger as a Fellow, he was weighed on college scales in the Senior Common Room, coming in at 10 stone 9 pounds. Apparently such weighing takes place 'on special occasions or when the Fellows are feeling especially happy, perhaps after some fine wine at dinner from the voluminous College cellar.' Schrödinger re-occurs in the weighing book in 1934, 1938 and 1948 - we are told that 'his weight hardly changed over this 15-year period'.

Clary goes on to describe other entrants in the book from T. E. Lawrence of Arabia and J. R. R. Tolkien to Harold Wilson and Dorothy Hodgkin. Throughout, there are engaging quotes and small details like this that bring alive Schrödinger's life during the period. Clary is strong on the academic aspects of Schrödinger's time in Oxford - which was arguably both positive and frustrating. Clary quotes Schrödinger's wife Anny, for example as saying 'they gave him a high salary, but he had no duties whatsoever... The scientific centre was Cambridge, of course, and not Oxford.' Although Clary gives reasonable coverage of Schrödinger's life outside work, he plays down the scientist's relationship with Hilde March, which would become more open when she moved in with Schrödinger and his wife on their move to Ireland. Although elsewhere it has been suggested that part of Schrödinger's difficulty in fitting in at Oxford was his unconventional relationship, Clary tells us it was not an issue that was significantly discussed in the college (pointing out that this implies it wasn't given much weight, as gossip is not exactly uncommon at high table).

In the end, whether or not this book will interest you depends on how much you want to get into the minutiae of academic life Schrödinger experienced during this period. As such, it would be a great research book for anyone writing a wider popular science title, or who has interest in what went on at Magdalen College back then. It is also worth saying that Clary's writing style is more readable than it is fussy and academic. However, this degree of detail, with many lengthy quotes from letters and documents, is not what you would call reading for entertainment. An interesting oddity.


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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here


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