Book Review: ‘Schrödinger In Oxford’ By Sir David Clary FRS
There have been several successful biographies of Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who contributed impressively to quantum physics, chemistry, electrodynamics, molecular biology, and color theory. Schrödinger in Oxford differs from the others in focusing at least initially on Schrödinger’s years in Oxford, where he was employed in 1933 after abruptly fleeing Berlin and the developing Nazi maelstrom. It also raises skeptical questions about the evidence of Schrödinger’s pedophilia that was reported in two earlier biographies. (For a quick summary, see the January 24, 2022 Forbes.com article, “Schrödinger’s Pedophilia: The Cat Is Out Of The Bag (Box).”
Author Sir David Clary is a fellow of the Royal Society and a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. His look at Schrödinger ‘s life and career is more history book than science text. Clary foregoes mathematical equations and explanations of theory and concentrates instead on how, despite the dire state of the world during the Nazi onslaught, Schrödinger was able to build an international life of science. He mixed with other scientific luminaries of the early twentieth century including Albert Einstein, Max Born, Max Planck, and Paul Dirac. He worked across several fields so successfully that, surprisingly to him, the very night he arrived in Oxford as a war refugee he learned that he and Dirac together had won the Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory.”
The book’s chapters are fabricated significantly from primary sources like diaries, unpublished manuscripts, and interviews of the very few people who, at the time of the author’s research, were still living and had fascinating stories to tell. The book’s scope is not limited to what happened in Oxford; it describes in detail the escape from eastern Europe that brought Schrödinger to Oxford as well as the years that he spent in Dublin and eventually Vienna.
In describing Schrödinger’s personal life, Clary types the scientist as “flamboyant” and mentions that he was serially “unfaithful” to Anny, his wife, who “remained with him.” It’s an odd choice of language, for it implies cheating, and Anny seems to have been anything but long-suffering. One of Schrödinger’s affairs resulted in the birth of a daughter, Ruth March Braunizer. Anny served as the baby’s doting godmother, and eventually adopted her. The baby’s mother and Anny’s dear friend was Hildegunde March, the wife of Arthur March, a colleague of Schrödinger. Arthur March knew of the relationship his wife was enjoying and, according to Clary, gave it his full consent.
Many people today would agree that consensual non-monogamy between a committed couple is a choice, not a problem. They probably wouldn’t type pedophilia the same way, however. According to a conversation that Clary had with Ms. Braunizer, the accusations of pedophilia that biographers have made are unwarranted. She insisted to Clary that one biographer in particular had read her father’s private papers too hastily. Understanding them required care and time, for the papers were occasionally sloppily written and contained a lot of shorthand. According to Braunizer, in suggesting that Schrödinger was a pedophile, his biographer had jumped to rude conclusions.
Granted, Braunizer may have been right. But she wasn’t necessarily. After all, one Irish family had called in their priest to reprimand privately a 53-year-old Schrödinger for the indelicate attentions he was paying to their 12-year-old daughter. And, really: If you were going to write in your private papers about episodes of pedophilia or even pedophiliac yearning, wouldn’t you write in a manner that made everything difficult to read?
Schrödinger in Oxford is an interesting narrative of scientific collaboration and of a nontraditional marriage. Clary, however, may have developed enough of a friendship with and loyalty to Braunizer to sacrifice his objectivity and misread his interview subject and Schrödinger both.
World Scientific, Hardcover $98.00 (256 p) ISBN 978-981-125-000-2. Also available in paperback ($38) and as an e-book ($28). Pub date March 2022.