Schrodinger On The Possible Breakdown Of Physics Inside The Atom


Erwin Schrodinger disapproved of orthodox Quantum Theory as it was applied to Electron orbits.  As I said yesterday, he felt the behavior of the negative charge surrounding an atom was much more accurately described as standing waves vibrating around an atom at different frequencies.

What Schrodinger especially detested, was the idea of Quantum Jumps– the idea that something completely outside Space and Time was going on inside an atom.  “Simply nonsense,” he once said of the idea of Quantum Leaps.

“The aim of atomic research is to fit our empirical knowledge concerning it into our other thinking,” Walter Moore quotes Schrodinger as saying in his biography, Schrodinger: Life And Thought.  If our atomic theory cannot be fitted into Space and Time, then “it fails in its whole aim and one does not know what purpose it really serves.”

Schrodinger felt that atomic theory’s willingness to toss aside such fundamental mental constructs such as Space and Time was “equivalent to a complete surrender.”  He believed that we humans could only understand our world in terms of Time and Space, and “what we cannot comprehend without [them], we cannot comprehend at all.”

This belief led Schrodinger into some cognitive dissonance during his lifetime.

During the first part of his life, under the strong influence of Franz Exner, Schrodinger was quite willing to believe that determinism broke down at the atomic level, that Nature’s laws only applied statistically in the realm of the very, very small.  He felt that individual atomic events are actually random and can disobey what we perceive as Laws Of Nature at any particular instant.  It is only when an enormous number of atomic events are taken together that statistically consistent outcomes occur which we know at the macro-molecular level as Natural Laws.

For example, the Law Of The Conservation Of Energy holds for the entire Universe, and in every event observable by the human eye.  Nevertheless thought the younger Schrodinger, at the atomic level, it is quite possible that Energy need NOT be conserved in each particular event.

As he wrote Wolfgang Pauli in 1922:  “Can the Conservation Of Energy-Momentum not be merely a macroscopically valid average-relation of which atomic physics knows nothing?”

Schrodinger at this point in his life agreed with Exner and felt that “to postulate an absolute law of Nature behind the statistical one” […] “goes beyond the bounds of experience.”  And concerning those events of which we have not experience, a good physicist will say nothing, since for a scientist, “what cannot be observed does not exist.”

Schrodinger was still thinking this way when he offered to explain to an audience why atoms are so small.  The question, he said, could be put another way:  Why are we so big?  And the answer to this, he said, is that the Laws Of Nature are statistical and only apply consistently in large sample sizes.  An organism which was too small for the statistical averages to work themselves to the forefront of outcomes would thus be subject to random fluctuations, and would therefore, quite literally, fall to pieces.

However, later in life, Schrodinger began to backtrack from the notion that Natural Laws breakdown in the Very Small.  He began to think that even tiny events are not completely random and undetermined.  “I no longer believe today that this conception (which I championed so enthusiastically four years ago) accomplished much,” he wrote not long after his change of heart.

Past and future, he came to believe, were equally real and valid.  Antecedents, he said, are “the mirror image in Time” of their consequences.


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