On the Death of Karl Schwarzschild

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Every once in a while, in the study of science, one comes across biographical snippets that momentarily breathe life into names that otherwise serve as shorthand for equations and eras. As an obvious effect of the selection bias involved with including this superfluous information in technical books, they are bound to be pretty interesting. Such stories range from the hilarious antics of Feynman [1] or Fermi [2], to the heartbreaking stories of Boltzmann and Oppenheimer, and even to the surprisingly scandalous life of Erwin Schr√∂dinger. But my all time favorite of all these historical “fun facts” is that of the man who provided the first exact solution to the Einstein field equations while fighting in the First World War: Karl Schwarzschild (pictured left impersonating a surprised walrus [3]).

Karl Schwarzschild was an astronomer, physicist and mathematician; an across the board physical scientist with passions both abstract and practical. He published his first article regarding the orbits of double stars at the age of 16 while still in high school. He went on to work on the mathematical treatment of orbits, constructed several useful astronomical instruments, and put forward theoretical treatments of comet tails and stellar atmospheres. His creativity was admired by some of the greatest scientists of his era. Eddington, chief among them, offered his praise in a strangely brutal simile [4]:

… his joy was to range unrestricted over the pastures of knowledge, and, like a guerrilla leader, his attacks fell where they were least expected.”

But Schwarzschild’s greatest contribution to science was finding the first exact solution to Einstein’s field equations for general relativity in 1916. This solution, which takes the form of the Schwarzschild metric, describes the space-time surrounding a non-rotating spherically symmetric object (the solution for a rotating spherically symmetric object was found in 1963 by Roy Kerr). It was through this metric that I came to meet Schwarzschild, since every time it is introduced in a class the instructor is sure to drop the mother of all fun facts: Schwarzschild discovered his solution while in the army during World War I, a war that would eventually kill him (among others).

In this age of Wikipedia, I find it hard to believe that I didn’t immediately go home and check the full story behind this statement. I may very well have, but over the years I have constructed a myth about the death of Schwarzschild that I at least half believed until I finally looked up the full story for this post.

I imagined Schwarzschild as the noble and peaceful scientist immediately skeptical of the war, but eventually conscripted to fight. There he fought on the front lines, carrying both a Mauser and a notebook. He would spend the long lulls between suicidal assaults through no-man’s-land huddled down in the mud in the trenches scribbling away like mad at what would eventually become the elegant solution that bears his name.

Then (and here I will blatantly plagiarize the All Quiet on the Western Frontmovie) Schwarzschild began to see the solution, everything started to fall in place. He became excited and no longer able to sit still. Now standing, he reached out towards the beauty of nature he saw not in a butterfly or bluebird, but in the fabric of space-time. Just as he finishes his solution, Schwarzschild’s head briefly peaks above the trench and is caught by a sniper’s bullet. Both he and his notebook fall to the mud unnoticed, an overly romanticized symbol for the futility of war or some such nonsense.

Now this version is obviously false (how did he get the solution to anyone?), but it is the one that has persisted in my mind grapes. So what really happened? When war were declared in 1914, Schwarzschild volunteered for the German army and manned weather stations and calculated missile trajectories in France, Belgium, and Russia. It was in Russia that he discovered and published his well-known results in relativity as well as a derivation of the Stark effect using the ‘old’ quantum mechanics. It was also in Russia that he began to struggle with pemphigus, an autoimmune disease where the body starts attacking its own cells. He was sent home, where he died in 1916 at the age of 42.

The reality is much more sensible than my version, and still a good tale in its own right: a brilliant scientist cut down in his prime, working until the very end. So why did I unconsciously elevate a respectable tale to one of mythical proportions? I think it has something to do with how we view the great scientists of the past. Since they were extraordinary at one thing (some scientific field), we assume they must have been extraordinary in every regard. Therefore, their fates must carry some deeper meaning or symbolism. But it turns out that the reality, while certainly less romantic, may be more satisfying (to some), that these men and women whose names live on tied to equations were just regular people who happened to be very good at one thing: being scientists.

Or maybe it’s just my inability to separate movies from real life. Who knows?

[1] Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is essentially the gag reel for 20th century physics. It can be purchased with money if you’re into the whole capitalism thing. Or for all you pinko commies and poor grad students there are two free options. One, assemble approximately one gaggle of undergrad physics majors or Virtuosi bloggers and proceed to give them the shakedown, at least one copy should pop out. Two, look into big government socialism.

[2] See Virtuosi blog post, Future.

[3] Some scholars use this picture as evidence of Schwarzschild’s involvement as the nerdiest and most forgotten Marx Brother. There is no evidence to suggest his was, in fact, Poindexter Marx.

[4] Quote (and most facts) lifted from here, take that Wikipedia!

[5] Apologies for the excessive and irrelevant links! [6]

[6] Apologies for the excessive and unnecessary footnotes!

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