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Ethics

Schrödinger lecture theatre at Trinity College Dublin renamed after sexual-abuse reports

20 Apr 2022 Michael Banks
The central courtyard at Trinity College Dublin
Change of name The school of physics at Trinity College Dublin has renamed a lecture theatre and is considering the future of its annual Schrödinger Lecture Series in light of Erwin Schrödinger’s sexual abuse of young girls. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Timothy Dry)

The school of physics at Trinity College Dublin has renamed a lecture theatre that was previously named in honour of the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The move is in response to revelations about Schrödinger’s life, specifically that he groomed and sexually abused young girls. The university says that it is also considering the future of its annual Schrödinger Lecture Series, which began in 1995 and is supported by the Austrian Embassy and the National Bank of Austria. 

Born in 1887 in Vienna, Schrödinger spent most of his early life in Germany and Switzerland. In 1933 he moved to the University of Oxford and that year shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Paul Dirac for formulating a wave equation that accurately calculates the energy levels of electrons in atoms. Yet Schrödinger’s personal arrangements – in which he lived with two women – were not welcomed and, following a stint at Princeton University, he returned to Austria in 1936. 

As an educational institute, we cannot condone or glorify someone who abused the trust between teacher and student

Jonathan Coleman

In 1938 Schrödinger was invited to Ireland to set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and was based at Trinity until 1955, becoming an Irish citizen. In 1943 he delivered a series of lectures at Trinity on how concepts in physics can be applied to living things, which resulted in the now classic book What is Life? . 

On 11 December last year the Irish Times published a story that outlined Schrödinger’s controversial past, which included relationships with two girls. The article prompted the physics executive committee at Trinity to meet on 20 January to discuss the article and the shocked reaction from staff and students.

A day later, Jonathan Coleman, head of physics at Trinity, e-mailed the department saying it would recommend to Trinity’s provost – Linda Doyle – that the Schrödinger Lecture Theatre be renamed and that it “would be inappropriate” to continue with the annual Schrödinger Lecture series. “It was noted that the majority of people had not been aware of and were shocked by the reported details of Schrödinger’s personal life and sexual history,” Coleman said in his e-mail. 

Following the meeting with the provost in February, they agreed to rename the lecture theatre to “Physics Lecture Theatre”. Since then, a portrait of Schrödinger in the university’s FitzGerald building has been removed.

It has also been proposed that the annual lecture – which has been cancelled this year – will be renamed the What is Life Lecture Series and be overseen by one of the biology schools rather than physics. Discussions are ongoing about how Trinity will commemorate that the 1943 lecture took place while acknowledging Schrödinger’s wrongdoings. 

Coleman told Physics World that he thinks the university has taken the correct, appropriate response. “As an educational institute, we cannot condone or glorify someone who abused the trust between teacher and student,” he says, but added that physicists should not begin to rename scientific concepts or teach about Schrödinger’s demeanours during physics lectures. “What we need to do instead is get much better at teaching the history of science,” says Coleman.

Anna Krylov, a theoretical chemist from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who has previously voiced concern about  what she calls “the politicization of science”, disagrees with Trinity’s decision. “These cancellations rob us of the opportunity to learn,” she says. “History should be discussed, not obliterated.”

Krylov fears that other institutions might follow Trinity’s move, leading to Schrödinger’s name being removed from medals, awards and even the equation itself. “The cathedrals of science were built by people, not by saints, and while some committed truly reprehensible acts, when we use their names, we recognize their scientific contributions and honour their intellectual legacy, not their morals or political views” she says. 

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