Post by Deanna Bailey (’12), student worker in Special Collections.
In a 1952 letter to Dr. Gilbert F. White, then president of Haverford College, Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger compares himself to his close friend and colleague, Albert Einstein. Rebels in the world of physics, Schrödinger and Einstein were just two of many scientists who made great contributions to the 20th century, a few of whom were able to come to Haverford due to the Philips Grant.
The Philips Grant consists of funds left by Haverford alum William Pyle Philips (Class of 1902) for two purposes: the purchase of rare books “which the college would not otherwise buy” and to invite “distinguished scientists and statesmen” to Haverford. Among the rare books made affordable by the Philips grant are a few of Special Collections’ most notable items, including a copy of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium caelestium, Castiglione’s The Courtier, and Marlowe’s The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta. Among the scientists who were able to visit Haverford are Nobel Prize winners Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi, and theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Presented with the prospect of giving a lecture at Haverford College, Schrödinger voices his concern about Haverford’s students who have studied other great physicists of the time, including Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and John von Neumann. He cautions Dr. White in this regard, saying that “[w]hile being on most friendly terms with all of them, I heartily disagree with them at the root…Your students would ask my opinion on one or the other point in the works of [Julian] Schwinger, [Sin-Itiro] Tomonaga and others. I should shock them profoundly by saying, I have not read it, because I am physically unable to follow arguments that make no sense to me.”
Schrödinger goes on to tell Dr. White about an essay he included in the letter, which was to appear in a volume in honor of Louis de Broglie, a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Schrödinger qualifies his work as “not a new theory–just rebellion, argued rebellion.” He then continues talking about his close friend Albert Einstein at the end of the letter, saying that “Einstein too is a rebel. But we are rebelling in opposite directions. To meet Einstein once again is, of course, a great temptation.”
With the end of this letter the communication between Schrödinger and Haverford College seems to stop; however, packed with a wealth of historical references, the letter places Haverford College in the realm of great scientists like Erwin Schrödinger. At the very least, the letter is indicative of the importance of grants, such as the Philips Grant, that secure Haverford’s position as a highly advanced scholarly institution worthy not only of bringing great minds to the college, but also producing great minds from its student body, something that Haverford continues to accomplish even today.