Schrodinger’s controversy: a room with and without a name

A look at the past, present, and future of the Fitzgerald building’s most famous theatre

This article contains discussion of sexual abuse, including of children.

Even for the most casual physicists, the name Schrödinger likely rings a faint bell of recognition. Austrian-born Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) is revered as a pioneer of quantum mechanics; best known for the ‘Schrödinger Equation’ that saw him awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933. Schrödinger is also one of a mere handful of physicists to cement a legacy in popular culture, courtesy of his illustration of the paradox of quantum superposition, ‘Schrödinger’s Cat.’ While those of us with a knowledge of physics limited to the content of a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory may associate Schrödinger with a simultaneously dead-and-alive cat in a box, for students in the Fitzgerald School of Physics, the name may be more associated with a place. A beautiful and historic lecture theatre, the Schrödinger Theatre, is one of the most famous auditoriums on Trinity campus. More recently, however, the theatre has fallen into infamy following allegations of paedophilia resurfacing against its namesake. With the School of Physics considering a change of name for the theatre, it is an apt time to reflect on the history of Schrödinger and Trinity, as the eponymous theatre faces its own form of quantum superposition.

“Schrödinger was invited to Ireland in 1939 by Taoiseach Éamon De Valera, who was keen to secure a heavyweight physicist.”

Schrödinger was invited to Ireland in 1939 by Taoiseach Éamon De Valera, who was keen to secure a heavyweight physicist to help launch his passion project- the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). With Schrödinger already a Nobel Prize winner and anxious to flee a Nazi-occupied Austria, De Valera welcomed the Austrian physicist with open arms offering him the position of Director for the DIAS School of Theoretical Physics. Such was De Valera’s fervour to ensure Schrödinger’s involvement in the early days of DIAS, the famously conservative Taoiseach showed no hesitation in securing appropriate visas for Schrödinger,his two wives, and young child. This action facilitated his unconventional lifestyle that had “offended the academic establishment” of other institutions such as Oxford University. Settling in Clontarf, Schrödinger became a founding professor at DIAS and proved instrumental in establishing the facility as a centre of scientific research in Ireland and the first of its kind in Europe.

During his seventeen-year sojourn, Schrödinger was no stranger to the Trinity campus as a known associate of Provost Albert McConnell. His most significant connection to the university, however, takes the form of a series of lectures delivered in 1943. Entitled ‘What is Life?’, the series saw Schrödinger take an unprecedented dive into biology, laying the foundations for the pivotal discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. The cross-disciplinary lectures were published as a book of the same name in 1944, and went on to have a remarkable impact in the field of molecular biology. The naming of the Schrödinger Theatre was intended to pay tribute to the ground-breaking contributions made through the ‘What is Life?’ lecture series that honoured a significant moment in Trinity’s scientific history. While there is some uncertainty regarding the exact venue of the lectures on campus, the lecture theatre offers a permanent reminder to the students in the Fitzgerald School of Physics of the history of ingenuity associated with the college, in what should be a source of inspiration and pride for young physicists.

“The theatre has been the venue for the ‘Schrödinger Lecture Series’ since its inauguration in 1995.”

The lecture theatre has honoured Schrödinger in more than name alone, having played host to a series of lectures commemorating the ‘What is Life?’ presentation. The theatre has been the venue for the ‘Schrödinger Lecture Series’ since its inauguration in 1995, annually attracting academics from around the globe to deliver lectures in the spirit of its namesake. It has, until this point, served as a fitting celebration of the tremendous contribution to the sciences facilitated by Trinity. One cannot help but feel, however, that in light of recent developments, the sense of open encouragement and inspiration has been considerably dampened for students, and left what was intended as a rousing gesture, feeling hollow.

Although details of Schrödinger’s unorthodox, polyamorous lifestyle were no secret, it was a 2021 article published in The Irish Times that exposed the grisly truth of a “serial abuser” that preyed on young women and girls. With a reported history of sexual abuse and grooming of girls as young as twelve, one need only look to Schrödinger’s own reflections on his sexual pursuits to gain an insight into the deplorable attitudes behind his behaviour. Schrödinger’s writings express sympathy for his former lovers (“poor things”), and he was evidently dismayed by the unfortunate reality that “they have provided for my life’s happiness and their own distress. Such is life.” As highlighted in the Irish Times article, Schrödinger went as far as to justify his “predilection for teenage girls on the grounds that their innocence was the ideal match for his natural genius.” He laments the “unrequited loves of his life”, listing among them Barbara MacEntee, whom he met on the Dingle Peninsula. Schrödinger was fifty-three years old at the time; Barbara was twelve.

While some have raised questions of the validity of the allegations made against Schrödinger, the attitudes exhibited in his own writing cast a damning shadow over the naming of a lecture theatre in his honour. Schrödinger’s own words stir emotions counter to the spirit of inspiration intended by the commemoration, and it comes as no surprise that it has prompted deep discussion within the School of Physics. The discourse has raised questions of how the college can honour the past while providing an open environment of learning for students that –one would assume –condemns the abhorrent attitudes exhibited in Schrödinger’s personal diaries.

The future of the Schrödinger lecture theatre currently remains uncertain, but it appears likely that a renaming is on the horizon. Two-thirds of undergraduate physics students voted in favour of renaming the lecture theatre, joining their voices to the petition (currently backed by 183 signatures) calling for change. The School of Physics executive is set to recommend the Schrödinger Theatre have its name removed for the foreseeable future and that College formally rename it, but a permanent decision has yet to be reached.

Regardless of the title bestowed to the lecture theatre in the future, it is important that such conversations are facilitated to reflect on how the college can pay tribute to the significant contributions of its past without coming at the detriment of the learning environment for its current students. In particular, careful consideration must be given when centres of learning are concerned to ensure an ethos of ingenuity and inclusivity is fostered, rather than tainted. Although it is unfortunate that what was intended as a commemorative and positive gesture has been soured, it also presents an opportunity to instil refreshed inspiration and ensure students feel their concerns are being met- a pity for the Schrödinger theatre, perhaps, but alas, “such is life.”

Update: On 08/02/22 the School of Physics made the decision to rename the theatre in question, now reverted to the original “Physics Lecture Theatre”, in light of the information that has come to light on Schrödinger. A portrait of Schrödinger will also be removed from the Fitzgerald building.