Thursday, June 08, 2006

Rosy glow, cold shudder

My sister Susan sent me this photo of my nephew Matt, a new graduate in physics. That's Schrodinger's equation on the board. I was exactly Matt's age when I first encountered Schrodinger's equation.

The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger invented the equation in the 1920s as a way of describing the behavior of matter on the subatomic scale. It is a wave equation; that is, the solutions have the form of vibrations. I remember the emotions I felt the first time I saw the equation solved for the hydrogen atom, a task that required several class sessions. The solution yields precisely the wavelengths of light emitted by hydrogen gas. Hidden in this lovely equation is the rosy glow of distant galaxies. I shivered with delight.

The now deceased biochemist Erwin Chargaff, who contributed mightily to the early understanding of DNA, wrote: "It is the sense of mystery that...drives the true scientist; the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If the scientist has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist."

I trust Matt felt the shiver too.