Sheila Tinney et al.

I came across the above picture via Twitter the other day. It was taken about 75 years ago, in 1943, the year that Erwin Schrödinger gave his famous lectures in Dublin on the topic What Is Life? Schrödinger is second from the right in the front row, next to Arthur Stanley Eddington (who is to his left as you look a the picture). Next but one to Eddington (to his left as you look at the picture)  is Éamon de Valera (who was Taioseach at the time; apparently he dragged all his cabinet along to Schrödinger’s lectures) and next to him (on the left as you look at the picture) is Paul Dirac. That’s quite a front row!

I’m afraid I don’t know the identity of most of the other people in the picture, apart from the lady on the far left who is Dr Sheila Tinney. She completed a PhD under the supervision of Max Born in just two years and was held in very high regard as a physicist, not least by Schrödinger himself. Sheila Tinney spent her academic career at University College Dublin and passed away in 2010 at the age of 92.

The gender balance in physics has improved a bit since 1943 but we still have a long way to go! Note also the numerous men in clerical garb.

There is a conference coming up in Dublin to mark the 75th anniversary of the What is Life lectures, and there has been quite a lot of interest in Schrödinger in the Irish media as a consequent, such as this piece in the Irish Times.

I guess most readers of this blog will know that Éamon de Valera set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) in 1939 in order to create a position for Schrödinger, who was then basically a refugee from the Nazis. He had attempted to settle in Oxford but his unconventional domestic arrangements – he lived in the same house as his wife and his mistress – met with disapproval. Dublin was far more tolerant, and he took up the post of Director of Theoretical Physics at DIAS in 1940 and stayed in Ireland for 17 years.

If you ask me for a personal opinion about Schrödinger’s private life then I have to say two things. One is that all three members of his ménage à trois seemed quite happy with the arrangement as well as the affairs that Schrödinger had outside it. His wife also had numerous affairs, including one with physicist Hermann Weyl. Unconventional it may have been, but most conventions are pretty silly in my view.

On the other hand, there is a part of Schrödinger’s life that I do find entirely reprehensible, and that is the way he treated some of the women with whom he had affairs. As the Irish Times puts it

‘For Schrödinger, the mystical union of sexual love did not endure for long .. With Erwin it was never able to survive tidings of pregnancy.

The Schrödingers did (unofficially) adopt one of the children he fathered outside his marriage, but he strikes me as someone who wanted (or perhaps needed) the sexual and emotional fulfillment his lovers could give him, but wasn’t prepared to accept the responsibility that goes with human relationships. That strikes me as a very selfish attitude.

5 Responses to “Sheila Tinney et al.”

  1. Hamish Johnston Says:

    Significantly more priests than women in that photo…times have certainly changed in Ireland!

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    One of Schrödinger’s research students in Dublin was a Canadian called Harry Messel who within a year was appointed head of the physics department at the University of Sydney on the basis of Schrödinger’s good reference. I worked under him for 2 years in the late 1980s.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Staggering that nobody knows what happened to that daughter.

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