Sunday, May 31, 2015

Q&A with Paul Halpern

Paul Halpern is the author of the new book Einstein's Dice and Schrodinger's Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics. His many other books include Edge of the Universe and What's the Matter with Pluto? A professor of physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, he lives near Philadelphia. 

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about Einstein and Schrodinger? 

A: I was browsing the Albert Einstein Duplicate Archives in Princeton and found a cache of letters between him and Schrodinger that was interspersed with newspaper clippings and press releases. 

I wondered why press releases would appear in a collection of correspondence, and discovered that Schrodinger had announced victory over Einstein in the search for a “Theory of Everything.” That bold announcement led to a media fiasco.

Q: You write, "These two old friends, comrades in the battle against the orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics, had never anticipated that they would be battling in the international press." What first drew the two men to work together, and can you say more about what lay behind their feud? 

A: Schrodinger first saw Einstein at a 1913 talk in Vienna.  Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity, and gave a brilliant lecture about the subject. That stirred Schrodinger to embrace fundamental questions in physics. 

In the 1920s, Schrodinger wrote to Einstein about atomic physics and learned from him about Louis de Broglie's concept of matter waves. That inspired Schrodinger to develop his own wave equation, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. 

But then Max Born reinterpreted the Schrodinger equation as probability waves, a view that greatly troubled Einstein and Schrodinger. It led Einstein to proclaim, "God does not play dice." 

The two became allies in the fight against pure chance and for a more complete version of quantum physics. Einstein spent decades trying to develop a “theory of everything” that would supersede dice-rolling quantum physics. In the early 1940s, Schrodinger joined Einstein in that quest. 

However, in January 1947 when Schrodinger sensed that he had found the ultimate equation he announced at the Royal Irish Academy that he had bested Einstein. That talk was covered by the Irish press, which led to reports in the international press and the media skirmish. 

Q: This year marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein's theory of relativity and the 60th anniversary of his death. What would you say are the most common perceptions--and misperceptions--about Einstein today? 

A: Einstein has remained an iconic image six decades after his death. He still embodies the idea of a genius, which is correct. 

However, there are many false rumors among them. He never failed math. Rather, he took a college entry exam early, and didn't do well in the French language section, and had to wait a year and take the test again. It was French that blocked him, not math. 

Many try to paint him as either a religious person or a pure atheist. Rather, he embraced Spinoza's concept of an impersonal God that is equated with the laws of nature. Einstein called that his “cosmic religion.”

Q: And what are the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Schrodinger? 

A: Many people who have heard of Schrodinger think only about his cat paradox. So when I write about Schrodinger the man, a lot of people think that I am making a joke. For example, I once shared on Twitter a solemn image of Schrodinger's grave, and was immediately met with the response: "Is he there.... or not?" 

That said, Schrodinger was indeed someone full of sharp contradictions. For instance, he would arrive at conferences dressed like a backpacker and go to the beach dressed in a suit!

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm getting ready to speak at the York Festival of Ideas in England. I'll be giving two talks: "Lost in the Garden of Forking Paths," with Victoria Carpenter, and another talk about my book. I greatly look forward to meeting UK readers.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: The more I learn about the history of physics, the more fascinating the subject seems to be. Physicists are all too human, encompassing an intriguing mixture of strengths and failings. Science is certainly not linear, but contains many twists and turns.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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