Localizing his final wavefunction in Alpbach
It took a little effort: a train out from Innsbruck to Brixlegg, followed by a regional bus into another valley of countless valleys, accompanied by the illumination of sharp morning light, in a blanket of meadows and buttercups, under a deep ocean of impossibly blue skies. And on both sides of this river valley are an endless series of mountains, these peaks the smaller cousins to larger Austrian Alps nearby.
In Alpbach, the weekday morning is quiet, as the town begins to stir with people starting their work day. The bank has just opened, fresh baked bread and pastry and roasted coffee emanate from the cafe from around the corner, a couple of trucks rumble into town with deliveries. An older couple walks by, and there are mutual sunny greets of “Grüss Gott”. The church steeple glows yellow at this hour, and it’s easy to imagine with its bell the church is an aural and visual beacon for miles.
I’m drawn to the church because that was always the plan, to look for someone who’s buried in the church cemetery. Ordered rows of headstones lie as you would expect, but by the northwest gate, I find a single plaque on the bordering stone wall. The plaque reads: “Erwin Schrödinger, Nobelpreis für Physik, 1933”, and next to the plaque is Erwin and Annemarie Schrödinger’s final resting spot1. Another academic pilgrimage completed.
Erwin and Annemarie
At the top is the generalized Schrödinger equation which was his breakthrough and one of his many contributions to the field of quantum mechanics in the early 20th-century. For the wave function, psi, of any physical system, the equation reads
with the system wavefunction psi which depends upon spatial- and time-coordinates, the time-derivative psi-dot, the Hamiltonian operator H, and physical constants i and h-bar. What Newton’s 2nd Law (F = ma) is to classical mechanics, Schrödinger’s generalized equation shown above is to quantum mechanics. In fact, you can derive Newton’s 2nd Law from Schrödinger’s equation, which I did decades ago as a university student, simultaneously blowing away my mind and providing a real thrill of deep understanding at the time. In the memorial plaque, the white dot above the second “psi” at the right was clearly a mistake during construction; the subsequent attempt to amend the mistake and fill in the stray dot is almost a distraction.
I chat with two people: the woman working the counter at the Tappeiner bakery, and a man who leads guided walks of the area. In both cases, I forgot to ask one key question: do they know the Schrödinger family? Turns out his daughter lives here in town, and their granddaughter’s family comes in regularly from Vienna to visit.
A real in-person answer awaits a return visit, because I’ve got to leave for Innsbruck before the morning is done. This short morning visit has achieved its mark: Alpbach has extended its beautiful claws into me.
1 Verena Tomasik is Erwin Schrödinger’s granddaughter and is an interpreter for the European Forum. In a 2015 interview, she writes: “Annie is not in Schrödinger’s grave at all; only her name shows.” According to Alpbach tradition, bones are removed after 21 years; an exception was made for Erwin Schrödinger.