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The improbable Irish love life of Erwin Schrödinger

'Poor things," wrote the Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger of the many women he had had as lovers: "They have provided for my life's happiness and their own distress. Such is life."

He was one of the 20th Century's great scientists, an influential philosopher, and a man with an unusual, even remarkable, private life. But what's Schrödinger doing in a theatre column?

The answer stretches back to Eamon de Valera, who brought Schrödinger to Ireland in 1939. The playwright Arthur Riordan has drawn inspiration from Schrödinger's stay here for a wickedly fantastical musical about wartime Dublin, Improbable Frequency.

Improbable Frequency first aired in 2004 and is to be revived at the Gaiety, from March 13 to 24, as part of the Dublin City of Science festival. It is witty, utterly original, and is almost entirely divorced from historical fact.

But the true story of Schrödinger in Ireland, recounted in Walter Moore's biography of the scientist, is a drama in itself -- and De Valera plays a crucial role. De Valera's first love was mathematics and, as Taoiseach, he determined to set up a world-class institute in Dublin for theoretical physics. Schrödinger had won the Nobel prize, and De Valera invited him to head it.

Schrödinger was working at a university in his native Austria at the time. But he had been outspoken in his criticism of the Nazis, and was suddenly fired, for "political unreliability". He fled Austria with his wife Anny, taking the train to Rome with barely any luggage so as not to attract attention -- he even left his gold Nobel medal behind. In Rome, fearing the post would be checked, he went to the Vatican to send letters seeking help.

De Valera was in Geneva as president of the League of Nations assembly. Schrödinger wrote to him and soon received a call summoning him to the Irish Embassy in Rome. There, he took a call from Dev, who told him to come to Geneva.

The Irish consul in Rome gave Schrödinger and his wife a pound each, tickets to Geneva, and visas for every country they might need to pass through en route to Ireland. Before the Italian border, they were taken off the train and questioned at length, but eventually they were cleared to proceed. They met Dev, and stayed with him, before going to Ireland.

But Schrödinger's visa requirements were somewhat unconventional: he lived with his wife and another woman, Hilde, with whom he had a daughter. This unconventional arrangement had previously caused difficulties for him at Oxford and Princeton, but it posed no problem for Dev, who told Schrödinger to write to him directly about the extra visas.

The appointment was a success. Schrödinger brought international prestige to Dev's new Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Time Magazine covered a series of lectures he gave in 1943 titled 'What is Life?' to which De Valera took the entire cabinet.

But if anything, Schrödinger's domestic arrangements grew more precarious. He fell passionately in love with a former actress, Sheila May, who was married to a leading Irish-language scholar, David Greene. Schrödinger wrote in his diary: "What is life, I asked in 1943. In 1944, Sheila May told me. Glory be to God!"

Then she became pregnant, and he wrote: "I am the happiest man in Dublin, probably in Ireland, probably in Europe!"

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But the passion soon faded. "Today I saw the scales creep over your eyes and I watched it die," Sheila wrote to him. (Their letters are excerpted in Bridget Hourican's collection of Irish love letters, Straight From the Heart.)

Sheila left her husband, who raised her daughter by Schrödinger as his own. Schrödinger remained in Dublin until he retired, and then returned to Vienna.

The Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies is still going, but An Bord Snip Nua has recommended it be amalgamated with UCD or Trinity. Such is life.

Rough Magic, the company producing Impossible Frequency, has also revived their hit from last summer, Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. It's at the Gaiety until March 3. See gaietytheatre.ie.

colinmurphy@independent.ie


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